“Nothing to Fear”

Hi! By now you know the drill. Please read a short story Annie submitted for her creative writing course and leave a comment. Enjoy! Thanks so much.

Nothing to Fear

The unrelenting pain was eased by the flow of morphine dripping into her vein. Sue was seldom conscious, but when she was, she found it difficult to speak. And, why would she want to talk? She had much rather stay in that dream world where mostly happy memories kept her sane. Her brain was being consumed by a cancerous tumor that grew larger every day and couldn’t be controlled by surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. Her doctors did not say, or wouldn’t, but she knew she didn’t have much time. It was touch and go.
But for the moment, Sue left her pain and thought about her earlier years, those happy days of childhood. Growing up in a small Texas town, population 4,368, she knew happiness as only a child can. With all due apologies to Hillary Clinton for stealing some of her thunder, Sue believed that it takes a number of individuals—a village–to raise children. Her parents would probably say that they raised theirs on their own, thank you very much, but, in fact, her neighbors, family friends, and even the weird characters who lived in the town where she spent her childhood, also helped raise her. Sure, Sue gave most of the credit to her mother and daddy, but they had help from the other town folk. Growing up there in the small community, she had nothing to fear. Life was gentler then.
She spent her childhood in the town without mosquitoes. Yes, that was Clarksville’s motto. It was painted in big letters on the four signs that marked the town’s boundaries. Even though her family’s house backed up to a big creek—Langston Creek, a concrete drainage ditch—where she and her younger brother played, Sue didn’t ever remember being bitten by a mosquito. What she did remember were the big city trucks driving through the neighborhoods, loaded with DDT, spraying it over everything and everyone who got in their paths. She would sometimes run into the street and through the spray. She shudders to think what that toxic chemical spray did to her genes. Where were her parents? Why had they allowed her to be outside when the trucks were rolling through the streets? See what this means? Where it goes? Parental neglect or willful child? She wondered if the cancer could be traced back to the DDT.
Sue opened her eyes to see her brother standing by her bed. He leaned over, kissed her on the cheek, and said, “Hi, Sis. I’m here. Things are going to get better.”
She smiled, remembering their early years together. Her baby brother Thomas Richard Johnson was born when Sue was three. Her life changed. Rickey, as he was nicknamed, took over the house. Soon after his birth, she was enrolled in Mrs. Spence’s kindergarten with children a couple of years older. She always held her own ground, but wasn’t too happy about this banishment. At playtime when the children were herded into Mrs. Spence’s shady back yard for playtime, she would make her escape as soon as her teacher’s back was turned.
“Mrs. Johnson, Sue isn’t here—again. Did she come home?”
“Let me look. Yes, Mrs. Spence, I see her walking down the drive. Thank you for calling. I’ll talk with her again.” Click.
You don’t want to know what her mother said to her every time Sue walked the four blocks from Mrs. Spence’s to Main Street, crossed busy US Highway 82, walked another three and a half blocks, and pranced onto the family home’s covered front porch. Just imagine the traffic on that highway with its heavy trucks and numerous cars. Think about a three-year-old girl walking four blocks, standing on the side of the highway, waiting for a break in the traffic, crossing three side streets, then running the last half block to home. There was nothing to fear.
Her escapes didn’t get her freed from Mrs. Spence’s clutches; it was the whooping cough, brought home from one of her infected playmates that spelled her freedom. Yes, Sue got very sick, coughing her head off, but her baby brother got it, too, and almost died. She was reminded that she nearly killed her brother whenever her mother got mad at her, and that was pretty often. She didn’t say anything to her mother about the fact that neither of her babies would have gotten the whooping cough, if she’d just let Sue stay home and not made her go to Mrs. Spence’s. In those days before vaccines and inoculations were part of a child’s growing up, children had little or no protection against disease. Sue’s parents were there and did their best to protect their offspring, but they couldn’t protect her now, nor could her brother.
Why couldn’t she just go home? Have hospice come stay with her? It was just like when she was a child. What Sue wanted to do was stay home and spend time with her picture and storybooks. There was not a time when she went to bed without being read to or hiding a book under her pillow to look at after the lights were switched off. The streetlight outside her window provided some light needed to see the pictures and words she later learned to read. She didn’t even think about what reading in low light would do to her eyesight. After all, she was a kid and wasn’t afraid of anything. Now she was afraid with every waking hour.
She couldn’t hold a book, much less read. Reading had been her pleasure all her life. Sadly, there was no library in the small town where she had lived as a child, but she somehow learned that the school district’s textbooks were stored in the county courthouse basement. Her daddy got permission for her to go behind the judge’s bench in the courtroom, take the steps down to the quiet basement, and read to her heart’s content. She’d walk to the courthouse a couple of times a week and make the solitary trek down to the treasure trove of books. How Sue enjoyed those hours she spent alone with all those books. No matter that they were textbooks; some had great pictures. She loved being alone in the quiet space with no one around to tell her to make her bed, dust the furniture, practice the piano, or feed the pets. She was totally free and alone. This would not have happened today. A nine-year-old girl going into an isolated basement without adults around to oversee her selections and her safety. Even walking home alone after dark, she saw no lurking pervert in any alley or in the park. What’s a pervert anyway to a child?
Sue sensed rather than heard the minister approach her bed. She knew he was praying for her as other ministers had prayed with and for her. She came from a family that had attended the First Methodist Church every Sunday morning. Her daddy would polish all their shoes on Saturday night, and her mother would starch and iron their clothes. Sue’s favorite preacher was Rev. Richard Ervin. He made a fuss over the children, inviting them to come down to the front of the church to sit on the floor, stare up at him across the altar rail, and listen to Biblical stories he modified especially for them. Those children’s sermons are pretty commonplace today, but they were rare in the ‘50’s as Sue was growing up. Afterwards, she would return to the pew where her parents sat.
Sue recalled that church was a place where misbehavior was simply not tolerated. Sorta boring for a child who didn’t know about adultery, jealousy, and covertness. She thumbed through the hymnal, searching for new words and guessing at their meanings. Did all adults sin? The preacher seemed to think so. Was she a sinner, too? It seemed that her mother might think so as she seemed to be constantly saying, “You behave yourself, Sue.”
She should have been saving her admonishments for Rickey, the brother who now stood beside her hospital bed. When he was old enough to drive, he and his best friend Don Winbrook would go into the sanctuary; sit on the back pew, making sure that their daddy saw him. As soon as he sat down, a little more to the front, the boys would leave the church to scout the parking lot for a car with a key in its ignition. Finding one, they would joy ride until 11:45, come back to the church lot, park the car, and sneak back into the church before the service ended at 12 noon. They never got caught! The boys seemed to have carte blanche in their actions. Neither one had a driver’s license. Think about having a wreck in today’s society with its subsequent lawsuits, damages, and forever debt. The boys joked about their prank, and thought nothing of it.
Sue, on the other hand, was caught every time she did something wrong. Every single time she broke the rules, she got caught. Carpe diem could be her motto for she was no angel. Sue got punished a lot. She pushed the edge with her family, but not her friends or teachers. Wonder why? Maybe she felt safe enough at home that she could misbehave, but not with her friends or at school with her teachers. At home, she thought there was nothing to fear.
Her older brother Robert gave her his old ’47 Chevy when she got her license to drive. However, with car ownership, there were a few restrictions. She was told that her car was a town car. That meant that she wasn’t allowed to drive it outside the city limits.
Restrictions and Sue have never been compatible. One hot May day, five friends and Sue decided to drive the 25 miles north into Oklahoma and go swimming at Beaver’s Bend State Park. They’d been there a couple of times on Girl Scout camping trips; they knew the way. They would get to the park, have a swim, buy cokes and chips, and get back home before anyone knew they had taken a little road trip. Thirty minutes over there, an hour to swim, and thirty minutes to drive back home. A piece of cake. Really, nothing to be afraid of.
As it turned out directions and time were not their problem. A flat tire was! Sue was undeterred. Before he let her have the car, her daddy had taught her how to change a flat tire. In fact, he had watched as she changed a perfectly good tire, taking it off and putting it back on, in their driveway. Changing a tire–no sweat. In no time at all on that narrow Oklahoma highway, she had the trunk open, the tire tool and spare tire out, the jack in place, and was using all her teenage strength to undo the lug nuts. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a car pull up behind them. A man got out. Nothing to fear, just some kind gentleman, stopping to help a carload of helpless girls.
“Here,” he said reaching for the tire tool, “let me do that for you.”
“Oh, thank you so much,” gushed her friends, almost in unison.
“No trouble at all. You girls need to get on home.”
A warning bell went off in Sue’s head. This man looked vaguely familiar, but she just couldn’t place him. His car had Texas tags, but she didn’t recognize him.
“Yes, sir, we’re on our way.”

They got back to town without any more problems—at least no more flat tires. Sue dropped off her friends at their houses, pulled into her driveway, parked the car, and walked into the house, heading for the kitchen where her mother was fixing supper.
“Hi, Momma.”
“Hi, Hon. Supper is just about ready. Wash your hands and sit down. Are you planning on going anywhere tonight?”
“Yes, I thought I’d go to the youth meeting at church and stay for the service. Why?”
“You’d better pray really hard because you’re not going anywhere else for two weeks. Mr. Bonham called a little while ago to ask if you’d gotten safely home. He said he stopped near Broken Bow and changed a flat tire for you.”

Sinking in her stomach. No discussion or argument. Sue knew she’d done something wrong. She wasn’t sad that she’d broken the town car rule, but that she had gotten caught. She accepted her punishment. Every teenager’s nightmare—grounded. It didn’t dawn on her until after she had children why her mother was so mad at her. Yes, Sue knew the dangers of an open highway and the crazies that might be driving it. She thought she had nothing to fear, but her mother knew better. Her mother would be waiting for her on the other side. Of this, she was certain.

In her drugged state, Sue had a nightmare, as she dreamed of someone who wasn’t nice or helpful, or even normal–Charlie Hill. He terrorized the children until they learned that they could call his bluff by standing their ground and refusing to be intimidated by him. As they got older, they would just look Charlie in the eye and say, “Get lost. Leave me alone.” And, he would step aside to let them pass, but it was a long time before they could do this. He never did anything bad to Sue or anyone else, but he scared the devil out of her each time their paths crossed, which was as little as possible. Charlie was probably mentally challenged, or at best delusional, as he thought he was one of the town’s law officials. It didn’t make him any less certain that he was a deputy constable when Mr. Limes, one of the town’s constables, took him for rides in the police car. He even gave Charlie a fake constable badge and identification card. Charlie would stop children on the street, flash his badge and ID card, and threaten to take them to jail. Their parents told them to just cross the street when they saw Charlie coming their way. Sue got pretty good at crossing streets to avoid him. She now, in her unconscious mind, tried to make excuses for his behavior by thinking that he was probably lonely. She never heard of any molestation, but then she was young. Parents would sometimes stop talking when kids came into the room. No more scary memories, please.
Pain. She wanted release from it. Why did she keep thinking about Pie Kiddsel? Pie was probably middle-aged when Sue was a kid, but he was too colorful to have any spirit, other than that of a teenager. It seemed that everything he had or wore screamed, “Notice me. Look at me.” Sue thought he was pretty cool.

Pie, that was his real name, had a pride and joy—a big black, powerful motorcycle. He decorated it with strange items. Wires were fastened to the decorated hand-tooled red leather saddlebags from which dangled Christmas ornaments, Easter eggs, movie star pictures, and American flags. Between the handlebars was a large reproduction of da Vinci’s famous Last Supper. Okay, maybe Pie was religious, but in his painting the disciples and Jesus were black. Sue didn’t understand why.

She asked her daddy, Why is Jesus black? Doesn’t Pie know Jesus is white like us?”

Her daddy didn’t hesitate as he replied, “Hon, not everyone is like us. In Pie’s church, all the people are black. His Jesus and God are black, too. God appears to each person in a way that the person is comfortable seeing Him. God is powerful enough to be all things to all people.”

On Sunday afternoon, Pie parked his motorcycle on the town’s square, standing beside it with pride. He always wore a suit and with a colorful matching shirt, tie, and shoes—blue, green, red, orange. As the family drove past the square after church, Sue leaned out the window to admire Pie’s outfits, which were certainly more striking than the church clothes her family wore.

Pie’s mother was an invalid, a rather large lady, whose 265 pounds were distributed on a 5 foot frame. He cared for her as best he could. Maybe he rode his fancy motorcycle to escape his home responsibilities. Sue didn’t know. One fall afternoon as Pie raked and burned leaves in his yard, the fire got away from him and their house caught on fire. The small wooden structure was blazing as Pie rushed to the front door. He entered the house and was able to wheel his beloved motorcycle out the door just as the roof collapsed. Before he could get further into the weathered wooden house, the flames had consumed it. Burned about his face and arms, Pie was taken to the emergency room, treated, and released. His mother was not so fortunate; she perished in the inferno.

Sue wondered a little about how Pie must have anguished over not being able to reach his mother, but, after a while, she didn’t give either of them much thought. After all her house hadn’t burned, and she didn’t go to Pie’s mother’s funeral. Sue would always remember Pie, a fixture in her hometown, riding his decorated cycle through its streets. Even as a child, she thought about his loss. She knew that if her house caught on fire someone would save her. Her confidence kept her from being afraid, but now with the cancer growing in her brain, she had lost it.

Certainly, there were good things and bad things about growing up in a small town. Sue and her friends experienced many of them. For example, everyone knew everyone else’s business. That was one of the bad things. On the other hand, when there were problems and troubles, everyone banded together to help. She thought back to the time when her Granddaddy Taylor had died. Friends and relatives immediately came to comfort her mother and their family. All of them brought food in labeled dishes that would require thank you notes and calls as well as the returning of the empty, cleaned plates and bowls to their rightful owners. There was no need to cook for three days in a house of sorrow as they feasted on funeral food. Then, too, before his service, the family sat down to a lunch prepared by their church family with the church ladies offering hugs along with the ham, vegetables, and rolls. Comfort took the form of pies, cakes, and cookies, translating subsistence into love and vice versa. That was one of the good things. Nothing to fear, not even Death. Just have to remember that. Don’t have to stay strong.

Yes, it takes a bunch of people to raise and care for children. Sue knew that, but in the back of her mind, she still had that lingering question, “Was there, really and truly, nothing to fear?” As she slid into the final coma, a smile lingered on her lips. No, now and forever, at last she knew there was nothing to fear.

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Annie Ambles writes in downtown Fort Worth

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