1st place short story

 

The little family was but three weeks Stateside when they set off on their mission that golden October Sunday.  Officer O’Kelly revved up the engine of the fine silver- blue Cadillac he had purchased that week from a second- hand dealer down on Sunset Drive, manoeuvred the vehicle out onto the Interstate and headed for the red hills of Georgia.  From time to time he glanced in the rear -view mirror and grinned at his young wife who was keeping their baby daughter Lily company in the back.  It was their first official Sunday drive.

            “Your father’s cousin Timmy Lynch has a parish not far from ye,” his mother had reminded him as she saw them off, bag and baggage, from the airport at Shannon.   “I sent him a telegram telling him ye’d be giving him a call as soon as ye were settled.”

            Throwing their eyes to heaven they had taken the address but lo and behold, his mother was right, the little parish of Huntsville was but 50 miles or so from the military base at Fort Benning, Georgia where they had been posted for the year.  So that Sunday they packed up ten -week old Lily, her blankies and soothers, her rattlers and shakers and off they set.  Finding the Parish was easy, after all Officer O’Kelly was adept at map reading, but alas when they got there, the little clapboard church was locked and bolted, Main Street deserted, and a sign out front on the Parish Noticeboard informed them that services had been cancelled.  There was nothing for it but to abort the mission and turn for home.

            About twenty miles down the Interstate, the engine of the Cadillac began to chug.  Officer O’Kelly, not normally given to panic, kept driving.  But his young wife hearing the ominous clanking and clunking urged him to pull off the Interstate where monstrous trucks were hurtling past them at ferocious speeds.  And, being a good officer, he obeyed.

            The light was beginning to fade, turning the clouds to shimmering shades of pink and gold as they made their way down the red dust road.  On either side tall pine trees stretched to the Heavens.  Soon the little one began to make her presence felt from her car seat in the back.

            “She needs her bottle,” the young wife said, “look up ahead, at the crossroads, that looks like a filling station.  Surely there’ll be someone there to look at the engine.”

The station, if it could be called such, consisted of two rusted petrol pumps, in front of a general store.  In one corner of the forecourt they could see a pile of lumber and another area seemed to be reserved for bottled gas, of which there surely must have been fifty cylinders stacked high on wooden platforms. The proprietor, if it was he, was stretched out on an old car seat to the right of the front door, when the Cadillac pulled up at the forecourt.  Not a budge did he make to indicate that he was open for business but kept right on chewing and spitting, chewing and spitting and staring till the young wife exclaimed,

“Dear God, where have we landed?  This is surely duelling banjo country.”

But Officer O’Kelly, a veteran of many a night manoeuvre where the enemy lurked behind every tree, was not deterred and hopped smartly out of the car.

From the back seat with baby Lily on her lap now, twisting and turning in a sodden, soggy nappy, the wife watched as he approached the long, lean figure.  Minutes passed.   Na’ery a twitch from proprietor.  Her heart thumping, she saw her husband, a man accustomed to efficiency, gesticulate fiercely to apparently no avail.  Minutes later he turned on his heel, strode across the forecourt and tapped on the rear window.

“Nobody here knows anything about engines, but they do have a payphone so I’m going to phone the base.”

As she reached to open the car door he stopped her, “Stay where you are,” he warned.

“Lily needs to be changed,” she insisted, “and she could do with her bottle.”

Some minutes later, the wife found herself in the dimly lit General Store.  Cartons and cans crammed the shelves.  Lengths of rope and metal buckets hung from hooks in the ceiling.  Sawdust, screws and nails lay strewn on the floor. There was an overpowering smell of paraffin oil which she identified as coming from a small heater at the rear of the shop.

“Would it be alright if I changed the baby?”

The question was addressed to the enormous figure seated behind the counter.

“Yawl do as ye please,” came the reply, but no light at all sparked in the little piggy eyes at the sight of the child.

As there was no clear space on the counter, the wife knelt on the floor and spread out the changing mat between the sacks of corn meal and the three large wooden spools around which had been coiled lengths of chain of varying degrees of thickness.

Her husband bent down close to her and whispered that he had made contact and help was on the way.

“But,” he warned, “it could take time.”

Baby Lily was working herself from a whimper to a wail now but the figure behind the counter seemed unperturbed as she rocked to and fro, the rocker creaking on the bare timber floor.  With her chair half turned towards the front window and half towards the store anything that moved could easily be observed, but nothing seemed to warrant a comment.       

Officer O’Kelly, irritated at his inability to solve the problem himself, decided to go back out to tinker with the engine. 

“We’re from Ireland,” the young wife ventured with a half- smile.

“That so.”

 The rocker never skipped a beat.  Shunned, the wife shut up.

Several minutes passed as Lily worked herself up to an ear- splitting pitch.

“She’s hungry.   Is there some way I could heat the bottle?”

“Fraid not,” came the reply.

 

A full, clear moon was rising.   Long strands of Spanish moss trailing from the trees cast dark shadows on the forecourt.  The young wife saw her dashing officer under the dim light of the store front and seeing how vulnerable he looked, was suddenly gripped with a terrible feeling of unease.

The proprietor had risen and crossed the forecourt to the log pile, returning some minutes later with a hatchet and a large hessian sack.  Lily sated after her feed from a cold bottle had ceased her wailing and the only sound in the store now was the rhythmic rocking from behind the counter.  Back and forth, back and forth as if marking time.   Warm and stuffy in the paraffin fumes, the young wife felt her eyelids beginning to droop.

 

A sudden jangle of the bell signalled the arrival of a customer, a tall, gaunt figure in well -worn dungarees and cowboy hat.

“Evenin’ Marge, boys here yet?”   

Seeing the woman on the floor, resting against the corn sacks, the sleeping babe in her arms, he stood stock still.   Then turning to Marge, grinning, he said,

“See you all got some company here.”

Only the increase in speed of the rocker and a slight inclination of her head indicated that she’d heard, and he ambled on down the aisle, disappearing through the double doors into the back area of the store.

Several minutes later, a pick-up screeched to a halt outside lifting a cloud of red dust.  The wife, on her feet now, clutching little Lily close, saw two good ole boys jump from the back of the truck.   Armed with crates of beer and bottles of Jim Bean whiskey, they too entered with a clattering and clanging of the bell. 

One, the younger looking, doffed his baseball cap, fixed on the young wife with ice cold blue eyes and sneered,

“Well, hello Siree.  Lookie what we got ourselves here.”

“Go on through now boys,” the fat lady ordered and like children they did as they were told, the smaller one, a barrel of a man, kicking the cornsacks as he passed.

Glancing at her watch, the wife saw that it was a quarter to ten. 

“Surely help will be here soon,” she thought as little Lily began to whimper in her sleep.

 

Officer O’Kelly paced up and down outside in the ever-dimming light, stopping every now and then and staring at the open bonnet as if will power alone would bring the engine to life.

The wife, having forced herself into a calm, almost tranquil state, by focussing her attention on her sleeping child, became aware of a creaking and shuddering from behind the counter.  The enormous figure was trying to ease herself out of the chair.  Her breath came long and wheezy.  Balancing herself on the arms of the rocker she drew herself up to her full height.

“It’s ten before,” she drawled, “and you all best be done by the hour.”

And with that she stretched her fleshy arm up and reached for a long wooden pole with which to close the shutter.

It was the signal for the proprietor to enter, hatchet in hand and the boys to re-emerge from the back.

“But where can we go?” the wife pleaded, “Father Lynch can’t be found and we’ve no way back to the base.”

“Did I hear mention’ of Father Lynch?” the tall, gaunt figure said.

  A cold, mean snigger came from behind the corn sacks and the wife felt the hair stand on the back of her neck.

 “Do ye know him by any chance? He’s a cousin of my husband’s.  That’s what brought us out here today, we thought we’d look him up, fill him in on the news from home.”

“Well, I wouldn’t rightly say we know him,” said the younger one said, as the tall one nudged him in the ribs, “let’s just say we might have come across him.”

“Shut your mouth Bradley,” the proprietor roared, “these good folks have come all the way from Ireland lookin’ for Father Lynch and the least we can do is show them his resting place.”

“Resting place?” the wife whispered and grabbing Lily’s accoutrements and hugging her close, she began to inch her ways towards the door.  At that moment Officer O’Kelly burst in, the bell jangling.  His ashen face and bulging eyes told her something was terribly wrong. 

“Yes Siree.  Father Lynch done found his way out here.  ‘Bout three weeks back.  Had him a little bit of car trouble too.  Shame the way it happened.”

Slowly, the hinged counter was lifted, the hatchet clattering to the floor.

 “Boys,” Marge wheezed, blocking the wife with her enormous bulk, “time to show these folks some of our Southern Hospitality.”

Southern Hospitality by Helen O'Leary