Choice (a very short story by Anna K. Stewart)
Caleb cringed as Thomas let loose with another harsh squawk, the younger boy’s eyes alight with the newness of it. Thomas knelt on the floor in front of Aunt Aggie’s worn loveseat, commanding tiny shreds of shadow into a makeshift circus with the strained squall of his new voice. Dribs of darkness formed themselves to a train of elephants on the floor, the proud mane of a lion, a silhouette in top-hat standing center-ring. Thomas chortled over them, a muffled honk through a nose turned suddenly sharp, its tip curved down to a point over his lips. Aunt Aggie watched it all in indulgent periphery, her hand skittering in haphazard lines over the journal in front of her.
Liza had drifted to a lazy sleep at Aunt Aggie’s side, blanketed by the excess skin gathered beneath Aunt Aggie’s left arm, the little girl’s lidless eyes flicking unseeing over them all.
Caleb retreated slowly, careful to avoid all of the others with their half-formed faces, shadowed limbs. He moved to the window, peeking carefully through the blinds and into the sun-bright day. He could just see the bus-stop if he pressed his face to the corner of the window and his nose into the glass. And, if he turned his head all the way to the left, he could even see the man who sat on the bench, the wild sprigs of hair which burst in curls to either side of a worn baseball cap, his back to the house where Caleb watched.
Caleb tried to imagine the man’s face, whether his chin were square or pointed, lips thick or thinned against the press of the sun. Invariably, Caleb found himself imagining the man with no face at all, just the blurred suggestion of eye or darkened indication of mouth, just like any one of the dozens of Aunt Aggie’s half-formed creations. Except Caleb knew this was not true. He had watched the man at the bus-stop every day for as long as Caleb could remember, had watched the man jump into shadows that only Thomas would have dared touch, had watched the man’s clothes change but never those sprigs of hair, never the rough shape.
And, as happened every day when Aunt Aggie’s anniversary clock chimed in solemn notice of the three o’clock hour, the bus came. And the girl would appear, a vague blur of braids and out-flung arms. Sometimes, the man would rise from the bench to meet her. At other times, the girl would grip him by one arm and the two would wrestle until the man stumbled to his feet. And the two of them would walk along the sidewalk in front of Aunt Aggie’s house to reach the yellow stucco house next door. They walked together most of the time, sometimes holding hands and sometimes not. Sometimes, the girl would run out ahead of the man for a few feet only to pause upon reaching the end of some invisible tether. And she would spin, arms wide, laughing.
Caleb liked those moments best.
Today was not a spinning day. The girl trudged off the bus with her hands clenched around the straps of her backpack and paused at the bottom-step for a full minute before stepping off onto the sidewalk. She handed something to the man on the bench before continuing her sullen march toward the yellow stucco house that waited for them.
Caleb continued to watch the man, the sprigs of curls, the dusty baseball cap. The man spent a moment at the bench before getting up to follow the girl, a rolled up sheaf of papers in his hand like a baton. Caleb did not wait to see if the man would catch up, knowing that, whether he did or didn’t, the two would be reunited in the house next door. The very idea made something in his chest ache and he spun to sit on the ground, back pressed to the wall beneath the window.
“Your heart,” Aunt Aggie murmured softly, words slipped with care between rounds of Thomas’s excited squawking. She peered at Caleb over the edge of her journal. “I wanted you to have one.”
“I don’t like it,” Caleb complained, pressing one hand against the hurt. “Make it stop?”
Aunt Aggie sighed, pausing in her writing to brush the stray hair away from Liza’s sleeping face, away from the lidless stare that never failed to raise goose-bumps on Caleb’s arms. “It’s already written, child.”
“Then…?” Caleb didn’t know what he wanted to say, what he wanted to ask. His chest hurt and his belly felt tight.
Aunt Aggie’s eyes fixed on him. “I could…make them yours,” she suggested.
And Caleb could see it, in his mind’s eye, just as clearly as if he were watching through the window once more. He saw the girl, her hair a braided tangle, thunking down each step of the bus to reach that sidewalk…except he was watching from behind this time, his own feet echoing her movements. And the man, baseball cap and sprigs of curly hair, would rise from the bench to greet them both. He’d tug at one of the girl’s braids with one hand and swipe at Caleb’s own messy shock of hair with the other. And the two children would race down the sidewalk laughing, hands gripping the straps of their backpacks heedless of the man’s shouts, their father’s shouts, behind them.
Caleb felt something in his chest stutter, flutter almost. His heart? He swallowed and looked over at Thomas who was still chortling and burbling at his shadow circus. A tiny shadow flickered over a nearly invisible high-wire. Liza’s snorted awakening caught the tiny figure by surprise and it tumbled into the safety net of Thomas’s hands. And Caleb knew that neither he nor the girl with the braids would ever pause to look at Aunt Aggie’s house with its peeling blue paint and rusted mailbox. They would fly past, laughing, to see which of them could beat the other to the yellow stucco house just beyond it.
Caleb rubbed at his chest. “No, Aunt Aggie,” he said. “Please don’t.” He thought of the girl and the man and the yellow stucco house. “Not yet?”
Author’s Note: C is for Choices and Choosing and Caleb. I think most writers are at least a little fascinated with the concept of choice, why people stay, why people go, why I am sitting here at 6:33am trying to type out an author’s note on the fly because I want to get the story posted before work and I feel the need to have an author’s note. Why is that?
As it is, I am still playing catch-up (more Cees!) but still having fun. Perhaps that’s why Aunt Aggie is back, why Caleb, why a lot of things. Happy Wednesday to the lot of you! J