Rylan gazes out the gabled windows from her upstairs office at the late afternoon sun shining through the tops of the pines on the sloping ridge above her home.  She leans back in her chair to loosen the kinks in her back and closes her eyes to block out the computer screen she has been staring at since five this morning.  With one more glance at the sunshine, she twirls her chair around to the computer and quickly shuts it down before she has time to reconsider.  Her hand absently slides down the log railing of the staircase as she descends the stairs.  She stops in the kitchen for a bottle of water and heads out the front door.  When she reaches the bottom of the gravel drive, her feet automatically turn right down the old dirt road that now has grass growing in the lanes.  Nobody drives down this far anymore, no reason to, since the pastures and cleared fields aren’t used and her Grandpa’s house is gone.  The sunlight shining through the tree leaves makes a pattern on the dirt lane that resembles a patchwork quilt and a chubby-cheeked grey squirrel with a bushy red-tinged tail cuts across the road and scurries up a big oak.  She rounds a curve and spots the old tobacco barn leaning a little farther to the south.  It’s rusty tin roof is missing a few more sections and she considers again buying a horse and repairing the old barn to use as a stable, but decides to put it off a while longer.  After all, she’s going to be gone at least a month and Kris would have to drive up here every day to feed it.  Of course, Kris would probably be happy to do it.  She’s been after Rylan for over a year to get a pet…a dog…a cat…a man.  Rylan glances up to admire the puffy clouds and the blue haze hovering over the high ridges in the distance.  She walks a few more minutes before she hears the tinkling murmur of Maggie’s Creek, where it runs beside the road for a short distance before it turns back west.  When he came home from World War II in 1945, Grandpa named this creek after his daughter, Maggie.  He had been twenty-five years old when he returned from combat and met his five-year old daughter for the first time.   

    Rylan recalls the day she first met her Grandpa.  She was seven years old when her Mom brought her to Tennessee for the first time.  On the trip down, her Mom had been so much fun, singing along with the car radio and pointing out funny signs as they traveled.  However, she became strangely silent after they arrived at Grandpa’s house.  At seven years old, Rylan had learned to listen harder to what people weren’t saying than what they were saying, so that second morning she wasn’t surprised to see their old car missing from the driveway.  They were supposed to stay for two weeks but her Mom was gone…gone, without even saying goodbye.  Grandpa was waiting for her in the kitchen.  He sat down his cup of coffee and said, “You know she’s not coming back.”  He hadn’t tried to offer any false hope or lie to her like must adults would have.  Instead, he just kneeled down in front of her and simply asked, “Rylan, are you afraid?”  She remembers nodding, yes, and then he reached for her hands.  They virtually disappeared inside his big, work hardened palms.  He told her to take a deep breath and when she let it out, to let all of her fear come with it… to let it all come to him.  She remembers the honest look in his eyes and the darkened circles underneath them, that told their own story and she knew in her heart that this man would never lie to her.  So, she had done exactly what he told her to and from that day forward she had never once regretted it. 

    That Fall, Grandpa enrolled her in second grade and every morning he drove her in his old pickup to meet the school bus at the main road and he was there every afternoon to pick her up.  He was never late, not once. 

    With a toss of her head to swing her bangs out of her eyes and the memories from her mind, Rylan works her way down the steep slope to the edge of the water to perch on a warm rock and pull off her sneakers and socks.  She dips her toes in the icy water and waves her hand to swat the tiny, buzzing gnats from around her face.  She remembers with a smile that her Grandpa had called them “dog pecker” gnats. 

    She wades into the water and with each step, little round creek pebbles and sand mash up between her toes and tiny minnows dart in every direction as she approaches the first of many large, moss covered rocks that litter the streambed.  When she was a little girl, she would try to jump from rock to rock without getting her feet wet but that no longer holds the appeal it did back then.  She works her way out to the middle of the small stream where the water almost reaches the hem of her shorts and raises a hand to her eyes to block the sun, as she first looks downstream and then swivels to inspect the creek bed upstream.  She assesses the damage and as she expected, some of her sentinels have fallen but a surprising number still stand at attention.  Heavy rains and wind take their toll on the stacked rocks and since she doesn’t walk down here as often anymore, naturally their numbers are dwindling.  She puts her hands on her hips and tries to decide whether to rebuild or just let it go.  While she’s making up her mind, she picks her way downstream absently choosing rocks as she navigates the cold stream.  Stacking flat rocks is nothing spectacular and makes a good base but balancing blunt end rocks vertically to make the top portion of her sentinels is a bit more of a challenge. 

    Grandpa had died in 1995 and that’s when she and Ethan had started building sentinels.  They had never talked about the why of it but they both knew they were building them for Grandpa.  Then Ethan had left in 2003, leaving Rylan alone…utterly alone.  She kept building sentinels…for Grandpa…and for Ethan…to welcome him home

    Rylan places the perfect round rock on the last of her three sentinels for the day and stumps her toe as she wades back toward the bank.  It doesn’t hurt too badly because her feet are numb from the cold water and she sits down to rub them with her socks before sliding them into her sneakers.  With a look at the lowering sun, she decides to walk on down to the old home place before heading back.  Within a few minutes, her feet warm up and she picks up her pace when she spots the first cleared meadow.  You really can’t call them cleared now, she admits as she looks at the bramble and small trees that are slowly taking back the land.  “It really doesn’t matter anymore, they can have it,” she murmurs.  In the distance is the old home place or what’s left of it.  Just a big mound partially covered in weeds but still recognizable due to the tall chimney sticking up from the south end.  She walks on down to what was the yard and looks up into the branches of the big oak where Grandpa built her first tree house.  One side of the old oak is scorched for about twelve feet up the trunk, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed the old tree.  “It’s a lot tougher than we are,” Rylan whispers out loud as she settles down in the grass and leans her back against the rough bark of the tree. 

    She closes her eyes and thinks back to her last morning in the old house that had stood here for over a hundred years.  She had woken up before dawn and climbed out of bed chatting to Oliver, Ethan’s old beagle, about what they had to get done for the day.  Kris had helped her move some of her stuff up to the new log cabin on the mountain the previous day and she was actually starting to look forward to the change of scenery.  Hoping it would help.  Hoping that she wouldn’t keep living in the past, hoping for some peace.  She was chattering away like a chipmunk when she realized that Oliver hadn’t moved.  She walked over, sat down on the bed, and gently stroked his old, grey muzzle before she slowly pulled the quilt over his little cold body.  She loaded the rest of the boxes in her truck, pulled it down the driveway and parked it.  She climbed out and leaned against the fence to watch as the sun came up and sparkled on the snow-covered fields and wondered why it did nothing to lessen the icy chill in her heart.  The kerosene was in the tractor shed and she had to use both hands to carry the five-gallon jug back to the house.  Face to face with the all too familiar walls.  Old pictures that had belonged to a Grandmother she had never known and her Grandpa’s old chair with its stained threadbare arms and sagging seat, sitting in the living room waiting on him.  Ethan’s civi’s hanging in the closet and his books and trophies cluttering the old pine bookshelves.    

    The heat had been fierce.  It forced her to back away to the truck to watch the fire consume the old house and everything in it.  Too much pain had lived there for way too long…too many people had left…and never returned.  All that was left behind was an aching void that could never be filled.   

    She had still been standing there long after the roof fell in and the snow turned to mush for yards around when the first fire truck appeared.  Brian jumped off the truck and ran to her.  The others just looked on in silence.  The old house was long gone by then. 

“Rylan, are you ok?”  Brian asked.

“Oliver died,” she replied without expression.

“In the fire?”

“No, he died in his sleep,” she said softly and then added in a defiant tone, “Brian, I’m not standing over any more graves.  Not another one…” 

About that time, Billy Joe Woodard, the county sheriff arrived, spinning down the drive with his blue lights blazing.  He jumped out of his truck and started loping through the snow toward Rylan.  Brian met him halfway but she could still make out most of what they were saying.

“What happened?  Is she ok?”  Billy Joe asked while looking over at Rylan. 

“Yeah, she’ll be ok,” Brian replied and glanced over at her, as if his statement bound her to a contract that she was duty bound to uphold.

“What started it?”  Billy Joe demanded and Brian just hung his head and shook it back and forth and Rylan watched as the realization washed over Billy Joe’s face.  He grabbed Brian’s volunteer firefighter jacket by the front and hauled him around behind the fire truck.

    In a few moments, Brian came back around the truck and eased up beside Rylan like he was sneaking up on a spooked horse.  “Rylan, Billy Joe is real upset about this,” and he motioned toward the blaze just in case it wasn’t clear what he meant. 

“Exactly, what’s upsetting him?”  Rylan stated loud enough for Billy Joe and the others to hear.

“Rylan Walker, damn it!  You can’t just burn a house down when you feel like it!  What in the hell were you thinking?  Billy Joe screamed and then added in exasperation, “Arson is a fuckin’ crime!” 

Brian furiously whispered, “He’s right, Rylan.  Don’t say nothing else…”

Rylan snarled in reply, “Don’t quote the law to me Billy Joe!  I know the law a hell of a lot better than you do!  Or have you forgotten just how much alimony you’re paying Mary Beth?” 

“Damn it!  Don’t bring that into this!”  Billy Joe screamed back.

“Rylan, good god, don’t antagonize him,” Brian pleaded and then whispered in her ear, “You know he’s still sore over you defending Mary Beth instead of him, especially after you and him were uhh…seeing each other…”

By that time, Billy Joe had walked up beside them and Rylan directed her reply at him.  “We weren’t seeing each other!  We were screwing.!  There is a difference!  You just happened to get screwed in court too, Billy Joe!  But you deserved it and you know it!  So, either arrest me or get the fuck off my land!”

Billy Joe was still screaming when Rylan got in her truck and drove away. 

StarPoet   StarPoet wrote
on 9/17/2008 2:26:11 AM
I liked this for you made it feel so real. Your characters were vivid and real to me. You nailed this one!

Rach   Rach wrote
on 9/16/2008 5:41:01 PM
wow i loved how you got such a sense of character from such a short piece my favourite bit is the first passge about her meeting her grandpa-really beautiful

Short Story
writing vwhitlock
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Rating: 8.7/10