I'm sorry for not submitting anything last week. I wanted to get this story completely finished before posting it, but it has proven to be a bit of a struggle. Here is what I have so far, and I'll try to get more up later this week.
“There’s nothing more that can be done. He may not last the night.”
The doctor’s grim assessment was not unexpected, but the dreaded confirmation still brought tears to Mama’s eyes. Preston quickly put his arm around her slumping shoulders, clenching his jaw to maintain his own composure. He looked at the plainly painted wall behind them. On the other side of that wall was his father, lying in bed, wheezing for breath and almost too weak to move. How much longer he would stay there was out of their hands now.
The doctor offered his condolences and Mama replied with a mumbled thank you. She slowly turned back to the bedroom while Preston walked the doctor to the door. This walk was one he had not expected to make before he even turned twenty. The law might call him a man now, but he certainly did not feel like one.
As the doctor stepped out onto the weather-beaten front porch, he turned to Preston and said, “I know it’s a difficult time for you and your mother, so I’ll be in touch later about my fee.”
“Yes, the fee for your father’s treatment. Since you’re going to be the man of the house…”
“What treatment?” Preston scoffed. “You didn’t give him any medicine or anything. You just poked at him a bit and said he was dying.”
“Preston, your father’s illness had already progressed to the point that no medicine could do any good.”
“Then what are we paying you for?”
The doctor pursed his lips in irritation. “There is still a fee for consultation. I examined your father and made a diagnosis, which means…”
“Which means we’re paying for no more than your opinion!”
“Look here, young man,” the doctor said sternly. “I know this must be hard for you, but you’re old enough to know that everything in this world comes at a cost. If you don’t have the money, we can make other arrangements, but you will be expected to honor your debt. Now go back to your poor mother and father. I will be in touch.”
The doctor stormed off into the chilly autumn dusk. Preston bit his lip and dug his fingernails into the weathered door frame. He wanted to tear the whole door off its hinges and hurl it at the doctor for not helping or caring. But how long had they waited before calling him? Long enough that it could have made a difference? The back of Preston’s neck tingled as pangs of guilt crept into his mind. He shook his head roughly to force them out. No use laying blame now anyway; it wouldn’t change anything. He pulled the old door shut and trudged back down the hall toward his parents’ bedroom.
Papa’s skin looked gray under the yellow light from the small bedside lamp. His eyelids drooped and his chest rose and sagged with labored breaths. Preston looked away and leaned back against the wall, feeling the wood trim around the door press against the length of his spine. His eyes wandered over to Mama’s bureau and settled on the faded picture of her and Papa on their wedding day. Papa was standing proudly upright in his best suit, looking so young and strong, unencumbered by the hardships of life for one brief moment. Twenty years had worn him down the way they would any man, but only the last few days had reduced him to a barely breathing shell of the man in that picture.
Preston started at the unexpected sound of Papa’s voice. He looked over to the bed and saw Papa awake and beckoning him closer. Preston moved to his father’s side.
“Leave us alone for a minute,” Papa told Mama. “I need to talk to my boy.” Mama nodded and slowly rose from her chair. She moved as if her body had become weak and fragile, like a paper doll that would instantly crumple if touched too hard. The thought of losing her provider and protector was weighing heavily on her. Preston watched her tread quietly out of the room and shut the door, and he feared what might happen to her once Papa was gone. Another knot started rising in his throat, but he quickly choked it back down. Hoping his anxiety was adequately hidden, he turned back to face his father. He was not prepared for the startling intensity in Papa’s eyes.
“Son, I want to tell you something,” Papa said with great seriousness. “I want you to know that I made my mistakes in this life, but I love you. I want you to know that.”
Preston fought to keep his composure. “Thanks, Papa,” he replied. “I love you too.”
“Son, I need a favor,” Papa continued. “I need you to go to Thunder Bay tonight.”
Preston blinked in surprise. The only response he could muster was a befuddled “What?”
“Go to Thunder Bay tonight,” Papa repeated. “There’s a man there; he’s got something of mine. I need you to get it back for me.”
“Papa, what are you talking about?”
“Just past the docks there’s a bar called Widowmaker’s. Tell the bartender you need to see The Trader. He’ll tell you where to go from there.”
“Papa, it’s six hours from here to Thunder Bay. I couldn’t get there till after midnight.”
Papa’s expression turned desperate. He sat up and grabbed Preston’s hand. “He cheated me!” Papa rasped. “He made me pay too much!” Preston nearly hollered out for Mama, but Papa’s frantic voice silenced him. “Son, my time is coming! You have to help me!”
“How? What did this man take from you? How can I get it back?”
“Give him whatever he wants! Anything! Just go tonight! Hurry!”
“All right, Papa, I will!”
Papa started to relax, but then a coughing fit overtook him. Preston eased him back down onto the pillows. In the midst of his hacking, Papa wheezed out, “Under…bed…take it.”
Preston kneeled down on the wooden floor to look under the bed. He saw an old black shoebox tied shut with two strands of white yarn. He felt weight inside the box as he slid it out from under the bed and untied the yarn. He pulled off the lid and discovered a silver pocket watch on a chain and an old revolver.
“Mama’s pearls, too,” Papa whispered hoarsely, and he pointed toward Mama’s bureau. “Top drawer.”
Preston rose to his feet and went to open the top drawer of his mother’s bureau. He felt a twinge of embarrassment at seeing her undergarments, but he rooted around in the drawer and found a blue jewelry case hidden at the back. He stashed it in the shoebox, but then his eyes fell again on the revolver. He turned back to his father.
“Papa,” Preston asked, his throat suddenly dry, “this man, the one who took something of yours…what if he won’t give it back?” He saw fear in Papa’s eyes, as if that very thought terrified him.
“Whatever it takes, make him give it back! Fly now, son; I can feel the time!”
Preston hurried out of the bedroom with the shoebox tucked under his arm. Mama called to him from the kitchen, but he went straight for the front door without looking at her. “I’ve got to go do something for Papa,” he said as he grabbed his coat of its hook on the wall. Mama asked where he was going; he told her only that he would be back later and then pulled the front door shut behind him.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Copyright (C) 2012 by Eric Landuyt