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Contemporary

Five Acres

The storm had been wild and vicious. Pine trees in the West Virginia mountains whipped back and forth, scattering snow piled on their laden branches into the wind while deciduous trees stood like naked saints holding up their bare arms to the sky; losing some to the wind, tossed into crackling piles soon covered by snow until only dark fingers remained, poking skyward from white graves.

In his old family cabin, Gabe Hawkins woke to a faint; almost inaudible tinkling sound. Imagination? He imagined things a lot these days. He wasn’t nearly as old as this cabin, but he definitely felt all of his seventy-eight years.  

He slipped his double-sock-covered feet into his slippers and reached for a flannel robe hanging across the back of the bed post. He sat on the edge of the bed and kept looking out the window.

Deep snow was up to the top of the porch. A gray mist hung over the familiar woods, and falling snowflakes gave the place the appearance of a fairy land. That’s what Emma would have said. His wife of fifty years had been the believer in miracles and enchanted forests. He believed only in reality; what he saw and could touch. They’d made a good team; her with her head in the stars and him with his feet on the ground. Together, they’d made a whole person.

She’d passed away three years ago. He tossed the robe back over the bed post, kicked off his slippers and crawled back into bed, pulling the overstuffed goose-down comforter that Emma had made decades ago, over him. Then he heard it again. A creak. Was it the boy? Did he come back? Probably not.  He put the pillow over his head and tried to go back to sleep. The boy would come back or he wouldn’t.

Sleep brought dreams of people now gone, good times, fun times. His dreams took him to happy days, people he loved. In his dreams they lived as real as ever.

* * * *

Gabe’s father brought him up to the cabin back in the 50’s, just as his grandfather brought his father to the cabin back in the 40’s. It was only five acres, high in the wild hinterland. His great-great-grandfather had homesteaded the parcel and passed on to his great-grandfather. It kept being passed on down the line. It was originally the family home, but his great-grandfather moved the family to the town below the mountain and started a successful business. He’d kept the cabin as a getaway for vacations or a place to think without disturbance. It was like a magnet that pulled generations of the family together. It was always there; a place that was solid regardless of what happening in the rest of the world.          

When his grandfather passed, his father and two uncles renovated the cabin. It now had two separate bedrooms and a large kitchen/sitting room. There was a loft above for kids with pull-down ladders. It had a five step porch to make it stand higher above the snow and rain than the original. But, it never had electricity or a phone. It had a kerosene stove and kerosene lamps and heat was from the large brick fireplace. Cutting the logs to feed it was part of what made it special. His father and his two uncles all took turns bringing their families there for vacations away from the tedium of the city.

* * * *

Eventually, Abe’s extended relatives died or moved away.  Family gatherings at the cabin disappeared. Contact faded into calls at Christmas and birthday cards. Gabe knew the younger generations kept in touch through electronics, but he didn’t care to learn. He had no computer. No fancy phone in his pocket. He had his old landline. If anyone wanted him, they had his number. He did still have a CB in his old Jeep for emergencies. That was as far as he went. When Emma passed, he became a recluse. His son Andy had settled his family in Kansas. Andy had grown into a good man, a good father. But now, everything had completely changed. There was only Gabe and his grandson James, “Jamie”.

* * * *

When Gabe received the news of the collision, he’d flown to Kansas City to be with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, praying all the way that they would survive the horrific crash. Only Jamie did. It was an insane time; legal things, funerals. He wanted to bring his son home to bury in the old church graveyard next to Emma, but his daughter-in-laws family wanted Andy and Lisa to stay together, in their family plot. Gabe understood. Let them rest together. He returned by bus to his home, with heavy heart.

Gabe had also agreed to let the maternal grandparents take Jamie, so he could stay in the same school and keep his friends, but after six months and three arrests, they had given up.

 They called Gabe, at their wits end: “We’ve tried everything” they’d cried. The next call was from child services. “The boy is going to be turned over to the juvenile system. You are the only alternative.”

“I want to help, but what good is an seventy eight year old man to a sixteen year old boy? Other than when he was born, I met him only once at Emma’s funeral three years ago.”

The social worker told Gabe that if he didn’t step up, the boy would go into foster care first, and the way he was going, soon he’d be in the prison system. Gabe said he’d give it a shot.

* * * *

It might be like having Andy back, Gabe thought. He and Andy had great times together.  Jamie, looked just like him. Both had the same curly auburn hair like Emma and Gabe’s deep, brown eyes.

But, now after two weeks of hostility, Gabe couldn't seem to break the barriers that kept them locked away from each other. Then he though of the cabin. “Maybe…” he said to himself. When told Jamie I idea, the boy just shrugged, never lifting his eyes from his cell phone and mumbled, “Whatever”.

The drive through the mountains wasn’t much better. Jamie kept his nose in his phone until they got out of range and the signal dropped. He started complaining about everything from the town and the weather to the jeep. He broke into groans when he saw the old cabin.

Gabe remembered the cabin as a welcoming place. But, he hadn’t been there in three years.

“We’re supposed to live in this?” Jamie said. “Look at those cracks around the windows. Look at that roof. I bet it leaks like anything. It probably shorted out all the electricity.”

“There is no electricity,” Gabe said. “It lives on wood and kerosene.”

“Aggghhhh…” Jamie groaned, “I died and went to hell!”

Jamie slowly followed his grandfather up the steps. Once inside, other than musty, the place looked intact. Of course, he wasn’t going to let the old man know the thought that.   “Where’s my room?” he asked.

“There’re two bedrooms and the loft. You choose,” Gabe said.

Jamie looked around and chose the room nearest the kitchen; it was also closest to the front door. Gabe took the other room with a big window that looked out over the forest. He plopped his things on the bed.

“Got to get a fire going. I’ll go out to the shed to see if there’s dry wood. You grab that broom and start clearing out the chimney.

Jamie started to protest, but Gabe stared him down. He picked up the old broom and started working. Gabe smiled and left.

Jamie threw the broom across the room and went back to his bed as soon as Gabe was out of sight. He tried his cell phone again. No signal. He threw that across the bed and sat starting at his feet until he heard Gabe groaning outside. He went to the window and saw the old man trying to lug heavy split logs up the stairs to the porch. He hesitated a second than mumbled, “Oh crap!” and went to help.

When he’d finished transporting a big pile of wood to the porch, he was aching and sweaty, even in the crisp winter air. Gabe had finished cleaning and had a pot of something bubbling away on the kerosene stove. Jamie hated to admit, it smelled pretty good.

“You’re better with the heavy stuff,” Gabe said. “Least I can do is make the vittles. Go wash up and I’ll serve it.”

Jamie looked around. Gabe nodded at the kitchen sink pump. “I primed it. Still works. Good, well water. Best around.”

“What about a bathroom?” Jamie said. “Go into the woods like a bear?”

“Heck no. We have perfectly good outhouse. Kind of harsh when the snow hits, but it does the job. Even has a big supply of actual toilet paper in the top shelves above the …you know…” Gabe laughed and started ladling out the stew. Jamie grimaced and washed up at the sink pump.

* * * *

The first week was getting used to each other. Jamie didn’t want to talk about his family and Gabe didn’t press him. But, he did tell the boy continuing stories about the cabins’ long history and things that had happened there, particularly concerning Jamie’s father.

A light snow started, but the sun was warm so there was time to get the needed repairs done and to chop wood for the fireplace. Gabe had stocked most needed basics; kerosene for the lamps and stove, dried beans, flour, shortening, sugar, coffee, spices and back-up canned goods, both meat and vegetables. He figured they’d do some fishing to supplement their meals.

Jamie figured otherwise. After a hard day of chopping wood and fixing the cabin up, he took off early the next morning. He staggered back through the door, tired, wet, sore and angry while Gabe was making breakfast. He’d tried to hot-wire the jeep, but Gabe had second-guessed him and removed the distributor. Walking down a dirt road of ice & slush wasn’t easy and when it started snowing again, he’d turned back, defeated.

“You win old man!” Jamie said as he grabbed for a biscuit and ladled gravy over it.

Gabe smiled. “Wash up. Get into some dry clothes before you catch pneumonia.”

* * * *

The next day the sun was shining. The snow had stopped and what was on the ground wasn’t heavy, so Gabe took Jamie into the woods and down to the old stream. He brought along a couple of fishing poles and his old tackle box.

 “Are there fish in winter?” Jamie asked.

“Sure there are. Want to go for it?”

“Yo, Dude! Why not? Might as well,” Jamie said.

The sun wouldn’t last too long at this time of year, so Gabe hustled Jamie down to the best spot on the river and baited lines. They tossed the lines into the water, which was flowing well through broken, thin ice areas.

While they leaned back on the giant old trees that framed the spot, Gabe told Jamie more stories about trips to the cabin and some of the wild things his father had done up here as a boy. The sun sent dappled light through the trees and danced on the water like fireflies. 

He told Jamie the last time he’d been up to the cabin was right after Emma

had passed away. “I came up here because I felt closest to her in these woods, where we’d picked berries together every spring so she could make her homemade preserves. The cabin has the gift of healing your soul when nothing else can.”

The boy listened, asking question now and then. Gabe didn’t know whether he should relax or be on guard. Jamie was con-man, city smart.

When the lines started to jump, Jamie’s enthusiasm was real. He pulled in his fish, a big one. “Man! This is way rad!” He shouted as Gabe showed him how to remove the hook safely and put the catch in their cooling pack.

“Make a great supper tonight,” Gabe said.

“Lets catch more,” Jamie said, re-baiting his hook and tossing the line into the water.

“One more big one like that will be more than enough,” Gabe said. “We only catch what we need, a day at a time.”

Jamie started to come back with a smart-ass retort, but clenched his jaw, then relaxed, smiled, and said, “Okay”.

Now, Gabe was sure he was being set up. But, figured what would be, would be. It was in the hands of fate. They both sat leaning against the rough bark of the fir trees at the edge of the stream, watching the fishing lines in silence until the next bite came in.

* * * *

The next few days went by too well for Gabe. Something was up. Jamie helped cook, clean, finish repairs on the cabin and was starting to take long hikes into the woods every day. Sometimes he came back with things he’d found; old arrowheads, fallen bird nest, and a quartz crystal rock.

The snow flurries grew, indicating a coming storm. Gabe got the jeep into good shape and they drove down the mountain to pick up supplies. It was getting colder and the smell of snow was in the air. Gabe knew that the fish would soon be in low supply and he wanted to stock in a lot of protein: canned meat, fish, and powdered eggs to add to their shelves. “This is just in case,” Gabe said. “We’ll try to leave before it gets bad. If roads are hit hard, it gets too dangerous – even in a mountain goat like my old jeep.”

When they reached signal range, Jamie was back on his phone. At their motel, he charged it over night. “Whatever will happen, will happen,” Gabe thought. Once they were well stocked they headed back to the cabin.

The storm hit sooner than expected, without warning. Snow and hail falling like it was being dumped from a giant truck in the sky. The wind whipped trees with a fury. It didn’t show any sign of giving up and every morning was darker than the next.

Gabe told Jamie, “It’s time. I don’t want you stuck up here if the roads completely close down. Tomorrow morning, we’ll go back to town.”

* * * *

The next morning, Gabe woke up in alone. There was plenty of food, but with the snow piling up to the top of the porch, he simply had to make do with wood that was inside and bundle up. The wind howled down the chimney like an angry sprit.

At his age, fighting with frozen firewood was impossible. Soon, the old stove would be his only source of heat. He’d had the good sense to stock in a healthy supply of kerosene.

The storm raged three days. Gabe was starting to see things he knew weren’t there. He saw Emma by the stove cooking, her curly hair shimmering. He shook himself went back to bed. “This might be it for me old girl,” said to the shadows.

The sound came again. A clinking. Gabe rolled out of the warmth of the comforter, toed his feet back into his slippers and shuffled toward the sound.  

The old stove was heating up the front room and a pot of coffee was steaming. A big platter of scrambled eggs and sausages sat in the center of the old wooden table. A stack of pan-fried toast filled another plate. The table was set with two plates, two knives and two forks. Paper towels for napkins. Gabe rubbed his eyes. The hallucinations were getting too real. When he opened his eyes, the table was still set. The food was still there and Jamie, tousled hair and all, was at the stove with a coffee pot in his hand.

"Yo! Old man," Jamie said. He held out a cup of steaming coffee.   

"Thanks," Gabe replied.        

"Whatever," Jamie muttered, a soft smile tugging the corners of his mouth. “I got caught down the hill because of the storm. I was dyin’ for some real eggs – not those powdered things. When I took the Jeep. I thought I’d be back by morning. Didn’t figure on the storm getting so bad. Guess, I don’t figure so good, huh?” He turned away, his face reddening.

Gabe didn’t buy it for one minute, but didn’t challenge it either. He was  happy that whatever devils Jamie had to fight with over the last three days had been whipped and he’d come back of his own accord. Jamie would talk when he was ready.

“Where’d you learn to make campsite coffee? Thought you city kids used those automatic things.”

“Asked the guy at the store how to do it.”

“Smart,” Gabe said, filling his plate.

"Found this on a shelf. Think it's still good?" Jamie tossed a jar onto the table. The label was old, dusty and hand printed: Wild Blackberry. It was covered with ghostly fingerprints of generations.

“Some of Emma’s best. This stuff never goes bad,” Gabe said.

Gabe carried his plate to the window. The sun was breaking through. Icicles along the edge of the roof were melting and dropping to the porch making the tinkling sounds. The five acres had done its work once again; giving the gift of renewed life, renewed hope. Now, it was up to the two of them to make sure that this stream of renewal washed the debris of the past away along with the melting ice.

“Yo, Gramps! You gonna stare out the window all day or eat?” Jamie said.

Gabe went back to the table and joined him.

# # # #

January 22, 2021 09:03

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