Charlie clangs the metal wrench against the side of the tractor. She’s helping Dad. My hands are too small to hold the tools—or so Charlie says. I don’t believe her for a minute.
I scratch the clip of one of my Sunday-best sock garters where it itches. Mama is waiting in the old Ford down the lane, and if we don’t get moving, we’ll be late for Church service.
Click. The doors of the old Ford open, Charlie slips into the backseat beside me.
“You’re not coming out with me this afternoon,” she says, her voice whisper-quiet.
Like heck I ain’t.
One hour in a stuffy church seems like a steep price to pay for my immortal soul, if you ask me, even though I am rightly terrified of going to H-E-double-hockey sticks. Mama says if I keep torturing my sister, they’re going to reserve a special place down there just for me. After mass, the old Ford rattles down the narrow packed-dirt track to the farmhouse and I am filled to the brim with Christian charity. When we pull to a stop, I even open the door for Charlie to get out, instead of slamming it in her face like normal.
Charlie wipes imaginary dust from her pleated wool skirt without so much as a thank-you to me, then she races me to the house. I can’t wait to get back into my worn denim. They used to be Dad’s, and Mama had to cut ’em down to fit me, but are soft as cotton against my legs.
I start to gain on her, so Charlie shoves me out of the way. You’re not coming out with me this afternoon.
I am! I let her get ahead of me, playing like I’m too hurt to follow. That’ll teach her.
Dad is leaning in the kitchen door, muttering to Mama in a voice so low he thinks I can’t hear, but I can. Girl’s almost 13 and it’s not right, her dressing like that.
Well, stop giving her your cast-offs, then. Mama’s reply is crisp as an apple.
Dad frowns. I’m serious, Lynn, people talk. Especially at Church.
Makes no difference to me. The noon sun lights up Mama’s blonde hair, almost silver, coming in behind her through the kitchen window. As long as she’s old enough to go out roaming in the county, I expect she’s old enough to pick out her own clothes.
My tummy rumbles, on account of me not having ate since breakfast.
Clunk. Shhhk. Click. The metal pin of the gate slides into place and I enter the brown warmth of the barn. Charlie sits with her back to me, feeding one of the goat kids from a nipple. She is dressed in an old white cotton shirt of Dad’s and a pair of trousers, still too big for me but they fit her just fine. She is still and patient with the kid and I almost, just for a moment, love her.
Then I say: “Dad’s gonna take your trousers away so that you start dressing like a girl!”
I call it out just like that. Goats shy at the sound of my voice; they prefer Charlie.
She doesn’t even turn her head toward me. “You know, for being 7, you sure do act like a baby.”
“Doesn’t matter how old I am since I’m the man around here,” I say in my best, biggest voice.
Charlie considers this. When she finally speaks, there’s a crease across her forehead. “Is he really going to take ‘em?”
I shrug. “He asked Mama to come talk to you.”
Charlie puts the nipple down and gently eases the goat kid off her lap. It bleats without stopping for half a minute before it realizes it has better things to do and wanders off.
Shhhk. Clunk. Charlie releases the latch on the pen and nearly bolts it back up before I have a chance to slip out after her. She leaves the barn without saying a word.
I lose her for an hour or two. It’s okay. I have an old dead tree stump I’ve been working on, peeling chunks off the bark whenever I have time away from helping Dad with the chickens (they like me better than the goats do). I get a couple good strips off it before Charlie reappears.
I trail her down to the edge of the farm, past the rows of sickly trees bordering our neighbor’s cornfield and the cattails growing in the ditch, out to the gravel road. I walk a few feet behind her, though she knows I’m there. If she didn’t want me to follow her, I wouldn’t have no say in the matter.
The sun is warm on my face and a breeze ruffles my hair. I know that Charlie goes off wandering every Sunday afternoon, but never where. She’s told me stories—she’s been in train cars and taken rides from men on tractors; she’s walked through fields of wheat higher than her head and ones full of flowers so yellow they almost seem to glow, even in the middle of the night. She never let me follow her before, but I’m seven years old now, and that means I’m just about grown. I hike up my trousers and walk a little taller.
Isn’t long before we see the car, trailing a dust cloud the colour of tarnished gold.
“Don’t say anything,” Charlie warns me.
The driver pulls up. He’s a smart-looking man in a suit coat and a hat, which is worn down by the brim but clean. He invites us inside, asks Charlie where we’re headed. He smiles a warm smile and says I should sit up front. After the smallest nod from Charlie, I do.
“Take us to town, please,” Charlie says. “I’m going to buy my brother a chocolate malt.”
The man chuckles. “Well isn’t that swell of you.” His voice is deep and low.
The way he asks me questions, I could talk for hours. He asks about Mama and Dad and the farm and the animals. We go on like that for some time. Charlie shifts in the back seat, tapping her fingers, scuffing her feet. Not saying a word.
The car bumps along, whizzing by an exit sign without so much as a slight tap on the brakes.
“Hey mister,” Charlie says. “You were supposed to turn off there.”
“Never you mind, son,” the man says with a gentle grin. “I know another way to town.”
Charlie shakes her head. “I don’t think so. This is bringing us further out to county.”
The man’s smile tightens. His eyes sparkle. “I just got somewhere I need to stop off first, if that’s okay with you?” He asks it like a question, but Charlie and me both know it isn’t.
“I think we’d rather—” she starts.
“I think you’d better shut your mouth. You’ll get out of this car when I say you can.” The man’s tone, until now soft and warm, turns hard, all danger.
The mirror dangling between me and the man frames Charlie’s face and the look she’s giving him is stone cold. In all her stories of adventuring, she never told me one like this.
A second, a minute, an hour maybe, passes.
There’s a rustle in the backseat, a metallic sound.
“No,” Charlie says. “I think we’ll get out now.”
She holds the metal barrel of Dad’s old revolver level with the back of the man’s head. That was Dad’s daddy’s gun. It is a M1917 revolver what Smith & Wesson manufactured in 1917 at the Colt’s Manufacturing Company. I made it my business to know that since, as Dad said, ‘ain’t no one who doesn’t know about a gun gonna be allowed to shoot it’.
It’s so old it’s rusted in some places, but Charlie holds it real firm, like she knows how to shoot it.
The man chuckles again but the sound catches in his throat. “Do you even know how to use that, boy?”
Charlie’s face in the mirror does a maniac grin. She pulls the hammer back.
Clunk. The car’s brakes catch, and we come to a shuddering stop.
Shhhk. Our clothes whisper-rustle against the worn leather upholstery as we shimmy across the seats. Charlie finds the latch on the handle of her door, then mine.
The man in the shabby hat doesn’t wait to see if we’re clear of the car. The cloud of dust as he peels away disappears him in all but a minute.
Click. Charlie releases the hammer, pops out the chamber where the bullets go.
We walk back to the farm, which is fine by me, even though it’s a ways. Charlie promises to make me a malt at home.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “for telling what Dad said. If he gives me his old trousers, I s’pose I can lend you a pair.”
Charlie smiles, puts the gun in her back pocket, reaches out and gently ruffles my hair. Just for a moment then, I love her.
I wrote this short story and submitted it for consideration in the 2018 Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition. It placed 11th overall, out of over 2400 individual story submissions.