This is an excerpt from "Where the Gravel Lane Ends", my latest story in the Twisted Mirror series. This is the seventh story in the series. When I get ten stories, my intention is to release a collection, five new and five selected stories from my previous books. I always seem to slip a weird story or two into my other collections. The new book will be a collection of those weird stories. I hope you enjoy the excerpt.
Jean Travers shoved a pack of cheese crackers and a juice box into each of her children’s lunch bags. The night before, she had exceeded her limit of red wine, resulting this morning in a trenchant, eye-twitching headache, and her tolerance for the children and their normal behavior was exceedingly minimal, or one could even say nonexistent. Besides her two kids, she was a woman alone. Exactly one year ago on this January morning her husband of ten years lost his life when his pickup truck skidded through a guardrail at top speed into the icy Ohio River. Jean believed her husband’s accident was no fault of his own. She blamed the event on the road conditions, but those who knew her and the kind of capabilities she possessed, to unravel a man’s soul to bare existence, to conjure heartache and grief within a wolverine, knew John Travers purposely and dutifully plunged himself into the deep, dark waters, ending a marital travesty that was long overdue.
Beth, a little girl of seven, slim and petite with hair color of dried tobacco, sat at the breakfast table reluctantly spooning up her mush, her face contorting its disapproval as she chewed and swallowed.
“Yuck!” she said.
“Eat your oatmeal, Beth,” Jean spouted to her daughter. “I won’t tell you again!”
Jean pressed two fingers to her temple searching for relief from her unyielding hangover. A moment later she folded down the tops of the lunch sacks and sat each by the counter’s edge where the children would grab one just as they headed out the door and down to the bus stop. Then, with a spatula she shoveled the rest of the scrambled eggs from a skillet onto Claude’s plate. He was the oldest at nine. A bright boy with blond hair, thin features, and a lazy eye, which was noticeable only when he took off his glasses.
“I don’t want any more,” said Claude.
“You eat these damn eggs.” She scraped the dried bits and pieces that were stuck on the bottom of the skillet. “And hurry up.”
Claude said, “I’m not eating that!”
With a heavy thwop, Jean came down with the spatula across the top of Claude’s hand. The sting buzzed up to his elbow, but he held in the notion to show his pain. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
“You will eat that. And every bit of it. And I mean hurry it up. If you two miss that bus, so help me, you’ll walk to school in the snow.”
Claude nibbled at the dried bits of eggs. With Jean’s back turned, he glared at her through eyes filled with a rage a boy his age should not have to experience.
Jean placed the skillet into the sink with the other dirty, foul smelling dishes—plates, silverware, cookware, bowls filled with curdled milk, cups partially filled with moldy red Kool-Aid. The volume of stench circulating in Jean Travers’ kitchen would disarm any normal individual’s stomach and eating would be impossible. For Claude and Beth, this was the norm, this environment that resembled a pigpen, a sewage plant, a landfill. In fact, the entire house was equally shambled. Baskets of clothes piled and stacked in the laundry room. Garbage overflowing from the bin. A blanket of dirt and dust a year old had settled and caked on every appliance and piece of furniture. This place was once a decent dwelling to call home, but all signs of that had vanished when the children’s father had passed away.
The breakfast Jean had thrown together was a rarity. On most Mondays, she would find it in her power to stir from her self-loathing, hungover state long enough to throw together a quick breakfast for the children. By Tuesday, and every day thereafter until the next Monday came back around, Claude and Beth were left to scrounge for themselves. In Jean’s mind, allowing the children to do for themselves would only make them strong-willed adults in the future, which she reminded them of regularly.
“It’s for your own good,” she would say.
Claude swallowed the last bite of eggs, stood, and hustled over to grab his heavy coat from the rack mounted on the wall by the front door. Shortly after, Beth followed and did the same.
“Don’t forget your lunches,” Jean said to the children.
Lunches, thought Claude. Hardly a worthy snack. Luckily, he had a couple friends that brought extra sandwiches in their backpacks every day. On the bus he would claim his sandwiches and give one to Beth. He remembered a time not so long ago, before his father died, when the brown paper bags were not so scarce. His father packed bulging peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with grape jelly oozing out the sides. Fresh apple wedges. Cookies. Nothing more than a fleeting memory now. Everything had changed. He missed his pop more and more, day after day. He knew Beth did too even though he thought she was still too young to understand the completeness of death, the grand finale of all things. Throwing a baseball in the backyard, the fishing trips, helping his dad change the oil in the driveway; those were all happy moments of the past, never to be duplicated. He wished he could go back. He wished he could tell his dad how much he loved and missed him. He wished all these things and so much more.