Authors: Kathleen Shoop
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Westerns, #Historical Fiction, #United States
The Last Letter
By Kathleen Shoop
Copyright © 2010 Kathleen Shoop
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents 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.
Cover design: Monica Gurevich/Julie Metz Ltd.
Cover photo © fotosearch
E-Book ISBN: 978-1-61789-858-7
Library of Congress Control Number: 2010916960
Des Moines, Iowa
Katherine rubbed the second knuckle of her pinky finger—the spot where it had been amputated nearly two decades before. The scarred wound pulsed with each heartbeat as her mind flashed through the events that led to its removal. Was it possible for an infection to form inside an old sore?
Don’t think about it. Just do your work.
She snatched the clump of metal from the stone saucer and scrubbed the iron pot as though issuing it punishment. She caught her forefinger on blackened beans.
She sucked on the nail. With her free hand she yanked the plug from the soapstone sink then opened the back door. Hot, thick wind brushed her cheeks and forced her eyes closed as she yanked the rope that made the dinner bell clang.
With a jerk of her hip she booted the door closed and wiped her hands on the gravy-splattered apron that draped her body. A crash came from the front of the house. A ball through the window? Another wrestling match over the last “up” at bat? She dashed toward the foyer to see what her children were up to.
She tripped over the edge of the carpet and caught her balance, gaping at the sight. There on the floor was her husband, Aleksey, kneeling over her sister Yale. A shattered flow-blue vase lay scattered around them.
Yale burped sending a burst of gin-scented breath upward.
Katherine recoiled as the odor hit her nose. “She’s
Take her to my mother’s!”
Aleksey looked up, his face strained. “Just help…”
She couldn’t handle Yale. Not right then. She turned and headed back toward the kitchen. Their mother would have to rescue Yale this time. As though being scolded from afar, her missing finger throbbed again, like a knife scraping at the marrow deep inside her bones the pain forced her to stop. Her mother hadn’t been there when she lost the finger. Her mother was never where she was supposed to be.
Katherine looked over her shoulder at the pair on the floor and clutched her hand against her chest. Yale gurgled, growing pale grey. Aleksey hoisted her and carried her to the couch.
She looked down at her smarting hand, against her heart, and clarity took over. It wasn’t Yale’s fault she was fragile. She’d been born that way.
She’s your sister. Do something.
She puffed out her cheeks with air and then released it. Her anger receded taking the throbbing pulse in her hand with it.
She grabbed a pot of hydrangeas from a side-table and ran out the front door, shook the billowy, blue flowers out of the pot sending coal-black dirt splashing over the wood planks.
Back in the house she slid onto the couch, Yale’s head in her lap, pot perched on the floor to catch the vomit. Aleksey paced in front of the women.
“She was at Sweeny’s.
Men, tossing her back and forth like a billiard ball. I barely…”
Katherine covered her mouth. She had enough of her mother’s failures. “I knew this kind of thing would happen. And, now—”
and I know you love them even if you say you don’t care. Your mother’s
We have to help them.” Aleksey’s jaw tensed. Katherine bit the inside of her cheek, struck by his rare disapproval of her.
“You can’t ignore this one more minute,” Aleksey said,
years is long enough to forgive.”
Without warning, Yale bucked forward and vomited, spackling Katherine with booze-scented chunks before passing out again. Tears gathered in her eyes. Hand quivering, she swiped a chunk from her chin with the back of her hand then smoothed Yale’s black hair off her pale, clammy forehead.
She gulped and gritted her teeth. “If Mother can’t take care of Yale, then it’s time for the institution.” The words were sour in Katherine’s mouth, yet she couldn’t stop them from forming, from hanging in the air, the spitefulness making Aleksey break her gaze.
Aleksey pulled the pot from between Katherine’s feet and held it near Yale as she started to gag again. “Yale can stay here. They both can.”
Katherine rocked Yale, not wanting to let her go, but knowing she had to hold her mother accountable. She was the
after all. She shook her head and slid Yale off her lap, patting her head as she stood.
Aleksey rolled Yale to her side as she heaved into the pot. “I’ll call Mother,” she said heading toward the stairs.
“I recall a time,” Aleksey said as he held Yale like she was one of his own, “when you called your mother, Mama, and the word swelled with adoration.”
Katherine turned from the bottom step, her posture straight and sure, like she was headed to dinner and a play rather than to scrape someone’s vomit from her skin. She gripped the banister trying to channel the mish-mash of emotion into the wood rather than feel it.
“I don’t recall that. Calling her Mama, feeling warmth in the word. I don’t recall it a bit.” And with that she trudged upstairs to peel off the rancid clothes and to stifle the rotten feelings that always materialized upon the sight of her family, drunk or not.
Jeanie jumped at her daughter’s thin voice. Katherine lay below her in tall sinuous grasses that bent with the wind, covering and uncovering her with each shifting gust.
“I’m hot and tired and when will Father be back?” Katherine rose up on her elbows. “I understand complaining is like an ice-pick in your ear, but I’m plum hot and plum parched and tired of waiting.” She jerked a blade of grass from the ground and bit on it.
Jeanie nodded and rubbed her belly. She was pregnant but hadn’t told anyone. Cramps pulled inside her pelvis. Would she lose this one? Nervous, she grabbed for the fat pearls that used to decorate her neck and smacked her tongue off the roof of her arid mouth.
She hacked up a clump of phlegm, turned her back to Katherine and spit it into the air. A sudden blast of air blew the green mucus back, landing on her skirt. Hands spread up to the sky, she stared at the ugly splotch marveling at how quickly her life had transformed. She would never have believed it possible before the scandal hit her own family.
With clenched teeth she wrenched a corner of her petticoat from under the skirt to wipe away the lumpy secretion. Her thoughts tripped over each other. Jeanie would not let doubt linger, mix with fear and paralyze her. She would be sure the family re-grew their fortune, that they reclaimed their contentment, their name, their everything. If only Frank were more reliable. Damn Frank was never where he was supposed to be.
Arms wrapped across her body, Jeanie tapped her silk-shoed foot. They should head for water, but she didn’t think that was prudent. She’d heard people could lose direction quickly in such expansive land. That frightened her, not being in control, but she also thought perhaps the people who ended up wandering the prairie lost were simply not that smart or were careless. Slowly, as she ran her fingers down the front of her swelling throat, each scratchy swallow symbolized the wagonload of errors Jeanie had made and she started to understand that intelligence and survival did not always walk together.
Five hours. They’d waited long enough for Frank. She pushed away the rising tears that grew from thinking of the mess her father and darling husband had made for them. Be brave.
They needed to take action or they’d prune from the inside out.
“Let’s head for water.” Jeanie clasped Katherine’s hand and pulled her to standing.
We can do this,
Jeanie thought. Frank had tied red sashes around taller bushes that were scattered in the direction of the well. Katherine wiggled free of her mother’s grasp and raced—as much as a girl could dart through grasses that whapped at her chest—over the land.
“Stay close!” Jeanie stopped and pulled her foot off the ground. She sucked back her breath as her slim-heeled shoes dug into her ankles. Katherine looked up from ahead, waving a bunch of purple prairie crocus over her head at Jeanie.
Jeanie turned to see how far they’d moved from the wagon. She could only see the tip of the white canvas that arched over it. She looked back in the direction of the well, of Katherine. The wind stilled. The sudden hush was heavy. The absence of Katherine’s lavender bonnet sent blood flashing through her veins.
She must be pulling more flowers,
Jeanie thought and rose to her tiptoes. “Katherine?”
Jeanie looked back at the wagon.
“Katherine!” Jeanie stomped some of the grass hoping the depressed sections would somehow stick out amidst the chunky high grass when they needed to return.
Jeanie’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat and shouted again. No answer. She shivered then clenched her skirt and hiked it up, thundering in the direction of Katherine.
Bolting through the grasses, the wind swelled, it pushed Jeanie back as she pressed forward, turning her shouts back at her, filling her ears with her own words as she strained to hear a reply.
Jeanie stopped as though slamming into a wall, swallowing loud breaths hoping the silence would allow Katherine’s voice to hit her ears. Nothing. She ran again, right out of her luxurious, city-shoes, while cursing the mass of skirts and crinoline that swallowed her legs. Her feet slammed over the dirt.
The grasses tangled around her ankles, tripping her. Jeanie scrambled back to her feet and took three steps before taking one right off the edge of the earth. She plummeted into water. A pond. Jeanie stood and spit out foamy, beer-colored water. At least she could touch bottom.
“Katthhh-errrrrr—ine!” She slogged through the waist deep water, her attention nowhere and everywhere at once. The sounds of splashing and choking finally made Jeanie focus on one area of the pond. She shot around a bend in the bank to see Katherine’s face go under the water taking what little wind Jeanie had left in her lungs away.
Katherine shot back up. “Mama, Mama!” She dropped back under.
Jeanie lunged and groped for Katherine as the bottom of the pond fell away. Jeanie treaded water, the skirts strangling her efforts to be efficient. A bit further! The bottom must be shallow or Katherine couldn’t have bounced up as she had.
But the bottom didn’t rise up and Jeanie choked on grainy water. She burst forward on her stomach, taking an arm-stroke, her feet scrounging for the bottom. Her face sunk under the surface.
We’re going to die,
Jeanie thought. Frank would never find them. Her boys!
Bubbles appeared in front of Jeanie and she reached through the murky water for Katherine. Finally, hands grabbed back, gripping Jeanie’s. She could feel every precious finger threaded through hers. Jeanie jerked Katherine into her body, lumbered toward the bank then shoved the floppy girl up onto it. Katherine lay on the grass, hacking and inhaling so deep that she folded over, gagging. Jeanie squirmed out and pulled Katherine across her lap, thumping her back until there was nothing left but empty heaves.