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Authors: John Carenen

Signs of Struggle

BOOK: Signs of Struggle
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Neverland Publishing Company

Miami, FL

 

This book is a novel and a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and should not be considered real or factual.

 

Copyright © 2012 by John Carenen

 

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

 

Cover Design by Joe Font

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2012950511

 

Printed in the United States of America

 

ISBN: 978-0-9826971-60

 

www.neverlandpublishing.com

 

 

This novel is dedicated to my loving, long-suffering, and patient wife, Elisabeth (Lisa), for her steadfast encouragement, wise suggestions, and brilliant insights.

I could never have completed
Signs of Struggle
without her.

 

K
aren O’Shea and her daughters expected a good time in Atlanta. They were excited about going Christmas shopping that Saturday morning.

Waiting for the girls to come downstairs, Karen fixed herself a cup of Earl Grey tea. It smelled good. She blew lightly across the surface, took a sip, and gazed out at the bird feeder beyond the kitchen’s bay window. The tea warmed her chest.

 

A brown thrasher scrounged for seeds below the feeder. Karen studied the bird. Brown thrashers were beautiful if you looked closely. Rows of brown specks flung across a white breast, rich chocolate feathering with white wing bars. Sharp, pointed beak. Karen had identified thirty-one birds on her Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds checklist. “Thirty-two,” her husband, Thomas, had said, “if you count me, a common loon.” She smiled at the memory.

 

She gazed beyond the fence behind the house, the branches of the maple trees stark and bare. A sudden gust of wind shook loose three bits of color; red, yellow, and orange leaves, last remnants of a spectacular autumn. The leaves drifted to the ground.

 

Karen set down her tea and took an onion bagel out of the freezer, nuked it, pried it open and spread cream cheese on the steaming halves.

 

Michelle came into the kitchen first, an eighth grader with dark good looks and a flashy smile. Effervescent and energetic, she looked forward to the crowd and the crush of the mall in Atlanta. She headed for the cupboard, pulled out a box of Fruit Loops, and dumped the cereal into a big bowl. "If I keep eating stuff with lots of preservatives, I'll live forever," she said.

 

Gotcha, the family's brindle and white English Bulldog, rumbled into the room, sat in front of Michelle, and looked up.

 

“No bites for you, Gotcha," she said. "This is
my
breakfast. You're doomed to failure if you expect me to feel sorry for you. I have a cold heart, pupper."

 

The Bulldog tried to look underfed. She stared at Michelle until a handful of colorful bits of cereal fell to the floor mat. Michelle sat down at the small table by the bay window and poured milk over her cereal. Gotcha ate the Loops, snorting and slurping. A thin smear of slobber remained where the cereal had once been.

 

Annie came into the kitchen. Tall, blonde, and lean like her mother, Annie strode to the cupboard and pulled out a box of Life cereal, read the label to be sure, and took the bowl over to the table. Karen grabbed her bagel and tea and sat down with the girls. Annie had started in on her cereal.

 

"Michelle’s up front on the way in and I'm shotgun coming home," Annie said. “That way, I'll be able to keep Mom company so she won't fall asleep at the wheel and kill us all," she continued, winking at her sister. Mom took the bait.

 

“I have never, ever fallen asleep at the wheel,” Karen said. “I don’t even get drowsy." The girls made eye contact with each other and grinned. Mom was half right.

 

They finished breakfast, aired Gotcha, and left the house. They drove through town and onto I-75 North.

 

"Where’d Dad say he was going today?" Annie asked. "Albany?"

 

"Augusta," Karen said. "He's got to tell a potential client there's no deal."

 

Michelle said, “Why can't he just give the guy a call?"

 

"Your dad likes the man. He didn't want to tell him over the phone."

 

"Speaking of Dad," Michelle said, "let's not forget to bring him something to eat."

 

"Such as?" Karen asked.

 

Michelle said, “How ‘bout jelly beans? He inhales Jelly Bellies.”

 

"He'd flip out," Annie replied.

 

It was cold for early December, and the sky was dark and slate gray, even darker north of them. "Looks like we might have some weather ahead of us," Karen said, "but I'm sure we can drive through it."

 

They passed Macon. Annie read a book. Michelle and Karen talked about Michelle’s friends. The O'Shea's left Macon and McDonough behind, quickly approaching Atlanta.

 

A semi-trailer truck, southbound on I-75, was drawing closer as the O’Shea’s Highlander approached Atlanta. Ricky Damon, behind the wheel for twenty-one hours straight, was sleepy. He had drunk three cold beers, the third one to cool his throat after the joint he’d sucked in half an hour before. Now, he was sleepy again. His eyelids drooped. The beer slipped from his right hand and fell to the floor of the cab, waking him. Ricky saw his truck drifting left from the fast lane. Someone had abandoned a Mazda Miata and he was going to hit it. A curse burst from his lips. The small car served to launch the truck over the low concrete median divider and into the northbound traffic.

 

The eighteen-wheeler flopped down on the O’Shea’s Highlander like a blind spaceship, its hot underbelly pinning the SUV and disintegrating the family, their beauty broken and crushed in a bloody bed of safety glass chips and razor-sharp metal, diesel fuel, and grease. Then it all hissed and exploded in towering flames with thick black smoke curling upward into the heavens.

 

Thomas O'Shea stopped by the Thrifty Flower Shop on the way home from Augusta and purchased red roses for his wife and daisies for the girls. He would be home first, and it would be fun to have the flowers waiting for his family.

 

When he pulled into his driveway, the Georgia Highway Patrol was waiting.

 

 

A
ll I want is peace. All I want is to be left alone with the privacy and quiet that goes with it. So I gave myself the gift of a leisurely drive in the countryside. What could be more benign?

 

I needed time to recover from my Georgia-to-Iowa nonstop road trip and two days of fruitless house hunting in Rockbluff. I needed cheap therapy, and a late springtime wandering in the hill country seemed like a good idea. I thought it just might work better than counseling, pharmaceuticals, or maybe even a cold six-pack.

 

I had left America’s Best Bulldog, Gotcha, perched on her pillow back in the Rockbluff Motel, our home the last three days, and escaped into my country cruise. That’s all I wanted—a drive in the bucolic backcountry—something I’d often enjoyed before the move to Georgia. Something good, back when I had a family. Before the troubles came. Before a lot of things. So I took off, leaving Gotcha to catch up on her beauty sleep.

 

The May morning was glorious as I meandered down gravel roads, weaving through dense stands of hardwoods alternating with fields of fertile farmland. Thick pigs wallowed in fresh black mud, and grazing dairy and beef cattle concentrated on generating more butterfat and bigger briskets. Living industry; blood and breath.

 

I drove randomly for a while, serenity at every turn. But then, on a blind curve, I met a speeding, skidding, silver Corvette that nearly ran me off the road. I couldn’t blame the driver. Hard to improve on springtime and sports cars. I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw the ‘vette disappear into its dust cloud behind me.

 

I continued, rounding a gentle, deep-shadowed bend, and slowed to a stop to admire a mailbox seated squarely on a brick column. I had time. The surname “SODERSTROM” was calligraphied on the side of the mailbox in the midst of flashy cardinals, burly blue jays, and pink wild roses. Good Iowa name. Not many Soderstroms in south-central Georgia.

 

Just then, a movement in the shadows caught my eye. I glanced up into a tunnel of shade produced by the oak-lined lane leading away from the mailbox. And there she appeared, tall, blonde, and full-breasted, emerging quickly from the shadows. A sprinting screamer, bloody and berserk.

 

And her face? Fear and terror, and agony of some kind. Edvard Munch should have painted her instead of the sexless being in “The Scream.” He would’ve sold more t-shirts.

 

My highly-cultivated selfishness took over and I paused, wondering if I could escape and avoid whatever problem was pushing that woman toward me, closer and closer. It would be so easy. I wanted to leave, free of any duty, responsibility or moral compunction to help someone else in pain. Her problem, not mine.

 

My decision bounced around in my mind like lottery ping-pong balls waiting to be plucked. I froze. I muttered to myself, pounded my palms on the steering wheel. I knew I was going to do that which I did not want to do.

 

The woman loomed twenty yards away, fifteen, closing fast. Too late for my escape. Maybe I had let the decision be made for me by deliberate dawdling, linked together with its sluggish brother, procrastination.

 

I slammed the shift to park; killed the engine, stepped out of my pickup truck onto the gravel, pocketed my keys, my blood pressure in my ears, beating out a regular rhythm of “dumb ass, dumb ass, dumb ass.” I looked up into the sky and silently asked,
What am I doing here?
No answer. Imagine.

 

I was reminded of the poem by A.R. Ammons, “Coward,” herein completely recalled: “Courage runs in my family.” I should have split.

 

The woman, lithe, long-legged and swift, ran beautifully and with purpose, her footspeed driven by some revulsion back there, at the farm. She drew quickly to me, her bulging breasts fighting for freedom under her pale pink t-shirt. I took two steps toward her and then the woman, shrieking words I could not understand, a kind of gory glossalalia, smacked into me in an awkward embrace. I staggered back, repositioned my glasses, and simply held her, overcoming my urge, even then, to flee.

 

I wanted peace. Now this woman took it away, falling into my arms and covering me with blood and pulp, screaming words I finally understood: “Where are they?! Where are they?!”

 

I shuddered, even in the growing heat of the day and with the warmth of her panting body pressed against me, almost enough to make me overlook the goop now pasted on my chest and arms. The tormented expression on her face would have stopped my heart a few months ago. Not now.

 

I drew my head back and looked at her. The congealing bloodstuff smeared her arms, up to her elbows, and splattered on her tight t-shirt and light blue jeans. I pulled back my head a bit in distaste. I do not have the gift of mercy, unless it is directed toward myself.

 

She trembled through our grim embrace. I took her shoulders and pushed her to arms’ length and looked into her face to try to stop her panic, to give her a stable point of reference, her stunning blue eyes wide and filled with fear, and comprehending more than I could understand. Her outstretched hands and forearms, slick with spilled life, reached out to me as she sobbed convulsively. Then she pulled me tightly to herself again and I said, “It’s okay.”

 

I am beyond stupid.

 

If only I had kept my moronic mouth shut. What I really should have done was pretend I had been blinded by the sun, or got a gnat in my eye, and kept driving. Now it was too late for that self-serving wisdom.

 

She did not appear to be hurt. She ran too quickly, embraced too powerfully, screamed too forcefully and wildly. Suddenly, chest heaving, she pushed hard away from me and looked at me as if I were insane. It made sense. After all, I had just told her, “It’s okay.”

 

She looked wildly up and down the road and shouted, “Where are they?!”

 

“Who?” I blared back.

 

“The ambulance! I called nine-one-one minutes ago! Oh, Jesus, where
are
they? Help my husband! Help
me
!”

 

“I’ll help you!” I shouted.

 

She turned instantly, like a filly startled by a snake, and sprinted back up the shaded lane with its enormous oak trees grown together into a canopy over the gravel road.

 

I pursued her, the gravel shifting and crunching under my shoes. I could not keep up with the athletic twenty-something. I am older than I used to be, ten pounds over fighting trim, and decades from street fighting, athletic competition and military service.

 

The passage of time exacts a toll, and at that moment, as I pretended to be a sprinter in order to catch up to the bloody beauty, I felt a hot twinge and heard a wet, popping sound in the back of my right leg, up near my butt.

 

I’d blown out my hamstring, my biceps femoris, but I wasn’t going to baby it (too much pride in the presence of the young woman). The pain nauseated me, so I modified my stride, continued on, surprising myself that I could still move at all, slinging my bad leg along and following the woman. I heard approaching sirens.

 

“Help’s on the way!” I shouted. She ignored me, racing another thirty yards into the farmyard toward the thing on the grass, where her sprint became a stumble, a stagger, a stop. She sank to the ground, wailing, keening in unspeakable agony just beyond where the machine had skinned her man.

 

I managed to lurch forward a few more yards. I stopped and stared. The John Deere tractor and giant green rotary mower it pulled had angled away, driverless, and nosed into a ditch, engine still chugging as if it had not eaten enough.

 

I heard myself whisper, “Oh, my God.”

 

The machine left behind two things. One part, knees down, was human, intact, although blood-splashed. Blue jeans and heavy work boots somehow escaped the mower’s sharp blades. The body above the knees had been flayed, as if set upon by an army of angry razor blades intent on slicing away clothes, skin and muscle, deflected only by a bit of bone here and there. The back of the skull, shoulder blades and ribs glistened wet and white in the sunlight. The buttocks were gone, sliced away. Pieces of blue shirt and red flesh were everywhere. I could smell the blood.

 

That thing on the ground before me had been human only minutes before, fearfully and wonderfully made. I had seen men who’d stepped on land mines. This was worse.

 

I forced myself to look away from the dead man and turn to the new widow, collapsed on the freshly-cut green grass a few yards away, slumped against a weeping willow tree. That wonderful smell, the rich, redolent glory of cut grass, would never again be the same for her. Maybe not for me, either. Sirens screamed up the lane, promising help for her, relief for me. Let someone else restore order to chaos. I would leave it all with the locals and have a cold one. More than one. A blessing both ways. They were trained in tragedy. I am merely experienced. I did not even know these people, this young woman, her shredded husband.

 

I could go away and be alone again.

 

An EMS (Extra Messy Situations) vehicle, lights flashing, siren wailing, roared up and skidded to a stop in the farmyard. The siren cut off in mid-shriek, a short “WHOOP!” that ended abruptly. Directly behind the emerging vehicle, a charcoal mini-van stopped. A young woman opened the driver’s door and eased out. She had short red hair and wore a dark green t-shirt, baggy black Umbro slacks and running shoes. She rushed to the woman on the ground. She made eye contact with me. I nodded, and she turned back to the woman now quietly fallen against the willow.

 

The EMS team came up, saw what was on the ground, and slowed to a walk. One of the men ran over to the tractor in the ditch and killed the ignition, then returned. The men approached me, their eyes on the thing that had been a man, until all three of us just stared at the bottom of the victim’s Wolverine work boots.

 

“What happened?” The EMS tech looked like someone who rode jet skis all weekend. The nametag over his shirt pocket read, “Schumacher.”

 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was driving by and she was running down the lane, covered with blood, screaming.”

 

Schumacher suddenly staggered away a few steps and threw up into a ditch. I turned to his partner, “Aldrich” on the nametag. I asked him about the lady from the mini-van.

 

“She’s Molly Heisler, pastor’s wife,” he said.

 

“Who’s the bloody lady?”

 

“Wendy Soderstrom. Her place, but she’s not from around here.”

 

“You know the family?”

 

“Yeah, went to school with her husband, Hugh,” Aldrich said. “Played football together. Conference champs last two years. Heckuva linebacker.”

 

“She said it was her husband.”

 

“Hugh? God Almighty. I was afraid of that. Good Lord,” Aldrich whispered. “I was hoping it was one of the hired hands, I mean, since it had to be somebody. Big farm.”

 

“Maybe you can get the pastor’s wife to take Mrs. Soderstrom out of here, escort her to the hospital. She’s got to be in shock. It looks like she tried to pick him up. Do they have any children?”

 

“No, but they were trying,” Aldrich said. No secrets in rural Iowa.

 

Schumacher stumbled back to us, looking sheepish because his humanity had overcome his training. Nothing to be ashamed of. He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. Organization and process began asserting themselves. I looked around to keep from looking at Schumacher. He didn’t need eye contact. Not now.

 

The two-story Soderstrom farmhouse, big, square, and white-framed, boasted a broad front porch furnished with a swing hung from the ceiling and a scattering of Adirondack chairs, weathered gray. Good place to kick back at the end of the day. A gray stone chimney dominated one end of the house. Secured high up on the chimney, a big, wrought iron letter “S” announced ownership. Green shutters. A small satellite dish perched on the green-shingled roof. Frilly white curtains framed the windows, upstairs and down.

BOOK: Signs of Struggle
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