By Sean Ealy
The first time I saw the little girl was in the field.
Appearing out of the wheat, she came to me like an apparition, and I almost hit her with the combine.
“What’s the matter with you?” I said, wiping sweat out of my eyes. “What are you doing out here?”
Her eyes were as black and as indifferent as the dress she wore, her blonde hair pulled back from her scalp in tight braids. Her skin was the color of winter moonlight. She might have been ten or maybe eleven, but something about the way she inspected me seemed mature beyond her years. Almost ancient.
She opened her mouth to speak and I felt something cold slide into my mind. That coldness slithered through me like a snake until it reached my heart and coiled there.
“Not yet, Joseph,” the little girl said. “You will come to me, but not yet.”
The corners of her pale lips slowly rose. Not quite a smile. Her arms hung lifeless, her shoulders stiff. The breeze caught the wheat behind her and tossed it about, shaking those million tiny heads and making them whisper.
“What does that mean?” I asked, but she turned away, back into the wheat, a small black dress against a backdrop of honey. Eventually she disappeared. Two crows burst from the last place I saw her, rising high, ink-stained wings beating at the relentless sky, and then they too disappeared.
I climbed back into the cab and I didn’t think about the little girl again until Danny died a couple days later.
My brother Danny was a true farmer’s son. Dad made him go to college, but he was back every summer, baling hay. As soon as he graduated, he terminated his affair with the world and was employed on the farm for good.
We weren’t the best of friends, but it wasn’t always friction between us either. I remember fishing for steelhead down the Deschutes and catching snakes in the alfalfa fields, or twisting off at the quarry underneath an endless summer sky. We worked hard and we played hard and we fought hard in between. That was the glue that made us stick.
Did I love him? I wouldn’t have said so until he died.
One thing about my brother, though. He could make Dad’s old equipment sing. He was far better with it than I was. Farming wasn’t a second language to Danny; it was the only way he knew how to communicate.
It was that reason alone I wouldn’t believe what happened to him until I saw with my own eyes.
Around eleven in the morning Dad’s old Ford came burning up the dirt road, dust trailing from the rear tires in a cloud. There were only a few things that would take Dad out of the field during harvest. I started across the field, and as I drew closer to the road I saw it wasn’t Dad behind the wheel, but Edgar Jenkins, a field hand Dad hired sometimes to help out with harvest.
“Edgar,” I said.
“Get in the truck, Joseph,” he said. “There’s been an accident.”
He took his hat off and swiped his dark brow with it.
“It’s Danny,” he said.
I slid into the passenger seat with my heart in my throat, and Edgar turned the Ford around.
Danny had been in the west field that morning. Nobody could figure what had caused him to get out of the combine and stick his arm in the header while it was still turning, but that’s what he did. The thing sucked him in all the way to his waist before it stopped moving.
“They’ll be picking pieces of him out of that field for days,” Edgar said.
I wanted to vomit, but I stood there like a straw man listening to Mom howl instead. The engine on the combine was still clicking and making noise.
“Somebody turn that damn thing off,” my dad shouted. His eyes met mine and I saw the old man was crying too. Danny had been his favorite son, I suppose, and now there was only me.
Later that night, Edgar found me out in the barn, watching a fly circle around the dim light hanging from the ceiling. I couldn’t stomach sitting in the house with my parent’s grief hanging in the air like some kind of chemical stink. It sounds plain childish, but I felt guilty. Like Danny’s blood was on my hands.
“Catch ya dreamin’?” Edgar asked.
He almost startled me right off the stool I had parked myself on.
“What?” I said.
Edgar put a shaky hand to his neck. He licked his lips and swallowed hard, as if he were choking on something he wanted to say.
“You remember how we found Danny,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, standing up. How could I forget?
“There’s something else, Joe.”
“What is it, Edgar?”
“I don’t think Danny was alone out there.”
My pulse began to throb in my temple. Bang bang, like a steel drum. “What are you saying?”
“I was the first to come upon him,” Edgar said. “You know that. The one who found him all cut up like that.”
“Yeah.” I closed my eyes but the image of Danny’s mangled body was tattooed on my mind.
“I saw someone out there, Joe. A little girl. Walking through the field. I think she was singing.”
I shook my head.
“I called out to her,” Edgar said, “but she disappeared. I thought maybe I was seeing things, you know? But now, well I don’t know.”
“My brother’s dead, Edgar,” I said.
I wiped my eyes and made for the door. Edgar caught my shoulder.
“I’m sorry for what happened to your brother,” Edgar said.
“Me too,” I said, and slipped away into the night.
There was a memorial service for my brother at the Lutheran church, an hour of tears and reflection before everyone went back to work. That’s life in a small farming town. Danny was liked well enough, and most of the town turned out to hear the preacher speak, but there was still wheat in the fields.
Mom and Dad tried their best to put on a good face, but I couldn’t hide the train wreck taking place inside my head. Ever since seeing Danny’s body in the field, I was a complete and profound mess. There’s a whole lot of time between waking and sleeping, and there ain’t no relief when even your dreams are plagued with images. All I could do was think about all that blood.
They’ll be picking pieces of him out of that field for days.
I told Dad I’d stay on until harvest was over, but after that I was done. He nodded, as if that was the very thing he expected me to say.
“Where will you go, Joseph?” Mom asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Will you be coming back?” There were tears in her eyes again, and it made me feel dirty to look at them.
“I don’t know,” I said, but that one was a lie.
I left my family’s farm in the middle of September. I told myself and some of my buddies that I was moving on to the next chapter of my life, but I was running away, fair and square. Running from something I didn’t understand, something that haunted me every remaining hour I spent in those fields. An idea had sunk its teeth into me, you see. That little girl was still out there somewhere in those fields, waiting for me. She had taken my brother and if I didn’t move on she would take me, too.
I wanted to go someplace that was outside the limits of the small town life I had always known. So I went to Portland and rented a studio apartment with the money I had been saving. I got a job at a downtown bookstore. I filled my little kitchen with groceries, filled my shelf with books, and went to work on erasing every memory about farming and my brother and the little girl in the wheat field. I busied myself with strange faces and exotic foods, letting the chaos of sound and the moving patterns of a combustive city envelope me until eventually I forgot everything. It was all so good.
And then I fell in love.
Sarah Gray came into the bookstore with a stack of books in her arms, piled to her chin. Her expression was so painfully serious I couldn’t help but lose myself in it.
“What?” she asked, setting the books down on my counter.
I realized I was grinning like an idiot and put a hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You just look—“
“Like I’m the biggest nerd in the city?” She pushed brown hair out of her eyes with a finger and shifted her weight to one foot. “You think that just because I’m pretty I can’t read all of these books? Too many big words, right?”
“No,” I said, my grin fading with all the color in my face.
But then she smiled, and I felt my heart take a nosedive. That sounds like a freshman thing to say, but it’s the closest thing to the truth.
“I am too pretty, you know.” She stuck out her tongue.
I got her number that day. Best thing I ever did.
After a month of seeing each other, she took me home to meet her parents. That was the test, you see. The imaginary line in the sand. If we were to go any further in our relationship, I had to gain the approval of her family. It was the unspoken condition, and I accepted it eagerly.
Sarah’s father was in real estate, had done well enough with it to retire early, before the floor fell out of the market. He was a casual guy with a face that didn’t betray his age and an open disposition that I immediately felt comfortable with. Her mother was short and warm and had an affection for hugging. They could have been characters out of an all-American novel, and they would have fit in well back home.
Sarah’s brother, however, was a page ripped out of a completely different style of book. He was the smudge on an otherwise spotless piece of glass, the watermark on a newly stained piece of furniture. He watched Sarah make her introductions from a distance, clung to the wall like he was a piece of it, and didn’t say a word when I offered my hand. His handshake was limp and his palm was sweaty and his eyes hardly left the floor. Whatever was on his mind, I wasn’t part of it.
We were swept to the dining room by Sarah’s mom where the aroma of potatoes and roast beef had my mouth watering like a dog’s. You’d think I hadn’t eaten in a century, but the truth was I hadn’t even been in the same zip code of a home cooked meal since coming to Portland, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I sat down at the Gray’s table.
“Do you get home often to see your folks, Joseph?” Mrs. Gray asked.
“Not often enough,” I said. I was staring at the slab of meat on my plate and something in my expression must have changed.
“Joseph, are you okay?”
Everyone was looking at me, and I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. Something unspoken exchanged between Sarah and her father, and I gripped my knee with a shaky hand, suddenly sure that I had blown it.
“Joseph’s brother died in an accident,” Sarah said.
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Gray said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said, forcing a smile. “It was a long time ago.”
“Not that long,” Sarah said. “Not even a year.”
Sarah’s honesty was raw and sometimes brutal but I loved her for it.
“You don’t have to talk about it, Joseph,” Mr. Gray told me.
But for the first time I found myself wanting to talk about it. Something about Sarah’s parents made me feel safe. So I told them about Danny, and halfway through my story, Sarah took my hand under the dinner table.
After dinner, Sarah and I snuck out to the back porch to watch the sun go down. Her parents had built their house on a beautiful piece of property overlooking the city, and they had an incredible view of the river snaking through the valley below. The sun had broken over the Willamette like an egg yolk, and the horizon was the color of fall leaves.
“You don’t mind that I told them?” Sarah asked me. She took my hand and led me to a bench along the wall.
“Hmm?” I asked, and she hit me on the arm. “You mean about Danny? No, I don’t mind.”
“Good.” She turned into the sunset, her face now washed by its daffodil glow. “It’s important, that’s all.”
“That they know everything about you.”
I let that stand a little.
“Don’t you want to know why it’s important?” she finally asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She put her hand over my heart and put her head on my shoulder, still looking out over the valley. Her touch made my skin dance.
“Because I think I love you,” she said. “Is that okay?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, grinning. She lifted her face to mine and it was as open and vulnerable as the sky in spring.
“I love you, too,” I said.
The moment disintegrated when the back door opened. Sarah’s brother, Reynald Gray, sauntered out to the balcony without even acknowledging us. He pulled something from his shirt pocket, sniffed it, and cursed. When he finally turned toward us, it was as if he had seen us for the first time.
“You got a light, Joe?” he asked me.
“I don’t smoke,” I said, looking at what he held between his fingers.
“Figures,” he said. He put the joint back in his shirt pocket.
“Rey,” Sarah said.
“Ah, don’t give me a lecture,” Reynald said. He plopped down into the chair next to me and began to drum his hands on his knees.
“Rey,” Sarah said again.
Her brother ignored her and looked at me instead. “What’s the matter with you?” he said.
“You don’t smoke?”
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
“Anything?” His legs moved back and forth anxiously. His pupils, I saw, were bullets. “You a tool?”
“What does that mean?”
“Rey.” Sarah said, annoyed.
Reynald laughed. “You probably haven’t even screwed my sister yet.”
I didn’t like the way this was going, and I didn’t like Sarah’s brother.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said.
“Cause it’s not nice?” he said, dragging out the last word, mocking me. He sighed, leaning back in the chair. “Sorry, man. I just need to get lit. You know how it is, right?”
“Don’t suppose I do,” I said.
“Tool,” Reynald said. “My sister’s dating a soft-headed farm boy.”
“Reynald!” Sarah snapped.
“Nah, it’s okay,” Reynald said, flipping a hand in the air. He sniffed and then laughed. “She doesn’t usually go for the country hick type, is all.”
Sarah shifted next to me, but I put my hand on her arm.
“I’m just poking fun.” Reynald stood up and stretched. “You really don’t smoke?”
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
“You guys are lame.”
“Go away,” Sarah said.
“Great story about your brother, by the way. He was all mangled up, right?”
“Reynald, that’s enough!” Sarah jutted a finger at him. “So help me…”
“Whatever.” He went to the back door and then paused with his hand on the knob. “She’s spoiled, you know. My precious sister, I mean. She’s been in the back seat with her legs in the air more than a few times.”
“Good night, Reynald,” I said.
“I’m sorry about my brother,” Sarah said once we were in the car. “He has some problems.”
“With drugs?” I asked.
“Yes, and other things. He’s been through counseling but it doesn’t seem to work. I don’t think he wants to get help.”
“What do your parents think?”
“About Rey? I think he hurts them mostly. You know, with the way he acts. But they pretend it doesn’t.”
I nodded. I knew all about putting on a good face.
“They seemed to like you, though,” she said, slipping her hand just inside my knee.
“Good,” I said. “I liked them.”
“It’s not true,” she said. “What my brother said about me.”
“I don’t care.”
“I just wanted you to know.” She sighed, and I felt her start to pull away. “He likes to hurt me, too. Maybe because I’m older, maybe because he’s jealous.”
“Hurt you?” I asked. The thought made me sick.
“Oh, not physically. He wouldn’t do that. He just likes to play games. With his words.”
“I used to be different.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” I said.
“I just want you to know that I’m not a bad person.”
“I know that,” I said.
“And neither is Rey. He’s just … lost.”
I thought he was a dick but I wasn’t going to say that.
She smiled, and her hand moved further along the inside seam of my jeans. My foot hammered down on the accelerator.
“You’re a good guy, Joseph Cook. A real swell peach of a man.”
“I’ve always wanted to be compared to fruit,” I said, smiling.
She leaned in and kissed me.
“Let’s hurry back to my apartment,” she said, and in her eyes the half-lights of the night danced and everything in the world ceased to exist for a little while. There was nothing but her breath on my neck and the faint hum of her last word, vibrating in my ears.
It was my turn to invite her home. It was part of the evolution of our relationship, but I didn’t like it.
“Okay,” I told Sarah. “We’ll meet my parents, and then we’ll run away. Those are my terms.”
“Those are the terms, huh?” She stuck out her bottom lip. “And what if we get lost?”
“Oh, that’s the point,” I said. “Getting lost is exactly the point.”
You will come to me, but not yet.
They haunted me, those words. I had done my best to forget, but they came back to me on the two-hour drive to my parent’s farm, a whisper now rising to a scream inside of my head. It was all I could do to focus on the road ahead of me.
Mom met us at the door. Her smile was genuine and her arms immediately went around Sarah’s slender frame. It was good to hear her laugh. The year had been hard on her though. Her shoulders sagged and the lines around her eyes were deeper. There was gray in her hair and in her eyes, and I noticed the slightest tremble in her hands when she reached for me.
She called for my dad and when he came in from the back room all I noticed was how thin he was. I sensed in his gaze a distance that would never cease to be long between us.
“Son,” my dad said, taking my hand. He turned to Sarah. “And who have you brought home to meet us?”
“Dad, this is Sarah Gray. My girlfriend.”
He nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Busy season, son.” His eyes flicked back toward me, and then to the floor.
It’s always busy season when you live on a farm, but that wasn’t what my dad was saying.
“I figured you might be in the field,” I said. I felt Sarah slip her hand into mine, and I had never been more grateful.
“Oh,” my dad said. His jaw clenched. “I’m around the house more since…”
He paused and his mouth snapped shut as if the taste of those unfinished words was bitter. His eyes bounced around the room and then finally settled on mine. In that instant I knew my dad was sick.
“Why don’t we all go inside,” my mom said. She put her hand on my dad’s arm and led him to the kitchen, leaving me and Sarah alone in the doorway.
That evening I took Sarah out to the barn to show her the horses, but they were both gone, their stalls swept out and empty.
“Died. Both of them.”
I turned around and saw that my dad had followed us out.
“Around the same time as each other,” Dad said. “Without a symptom.”
“That’s a shame,” I said.
“A shame,” Dad said. He nodded, chewing on that word. “You could say that.”
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Sarah said. She kissed me and then left us. Not many times in my life had I felt as lonely as I did watching her go.
I hadn’t stood alone in a room with my dad in a long time. Even before Danny’s death, we were never close. I could never be who he wanted me to be, although he’d never say that. Not with words anyhow. Silence could be just as cruel as a fist.
“How long?” I asked him.
“Since the horses died?”
“How long have you been sick?”
“Since you left,” he said. My fault, his tone said.
“What is it?”
“Cancer. It’s in my liver.”
I cursed the space between us. If a son can’t reach for his dad in a time like that then what good is he? What kind of world is that to live in?
“You tell Mom?” I asked.
“Yeah, she knows.” He pulled a piece of straw from a nearby bale and started twisting it in his hands.
“How long do you have?” I asked.
He laughed. “They told me six months, but I already beat that. I reckon they don’t even know, them doctors.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him. I wiped a hand over my face. I wanted to look at anything but my broken father, so I looked at the floor, the bales of straw, the tack hanging from the wall.
When I looked at the window, I saw a face there, staring back at me, just a shadow in the dim light. But I knew who it was. The little girl had found us again.
When I turned to my dad, he was crying.
“You shouldn’t have left us, son,” he said. He didn’t wipe his eyes, just let them drip like he was wringing out his soul, and somehow that was a terrible thing. “You just shouldn’t have done it. Not after Danny left us the way he did. Wasn’t right.”
“He died, Dad. Danny died.”
“You shouldn’t have left us, is all.” He looked at me for the longest time. Then he turned and went away.
When I turned back toward the window, the little girl was gone. Maybe I was seeing things, but I didn’t think so.
We had planned to stay the night, but after the conversation with my dad it just didn’t feel right. That kind of tension gets under your skin, makes everything inside feel hollow.
“Your family is nice,” Sarah said.
I pulled onto the interstate, grimacing at darkness beyond the headlights.
“Nice,” I said. “That’s not the word I would have used.”
“They seemed nice.”
“My dad has cancer,” I said.
“Your mom told me,” Sarah said. “I’m sorry, Joseph.”
There was a detachment in her voice that unsettled me.
“Who else lives with your mom and dad?” Sarah asked.
“Just them,” I said.
“What about the people working for them? Do they have children?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
Her hands were in her lap, and I could see them working against each other. She shook her head.
“No reason,” she said, and turned toward her window.
I did the worst thing then. I let it go. I knew something was on Sarah’s mind, but I didn’t have the energy to pursue it. Maybe if I had she would still be alive.
Reynald was arrested the next day with an ounce of meth in his bag. Turns out that brother Reynald was into more than anybody in the Gray house had known about.
Sarah called me in tears. Her family was devastated. I don’t know how they missed the signs that their son was royally screwed in the head, but what do I know? She asked if she could come over, and of course I said yes.
Two hours later she called again. Reynald was out on bail and they were going to hold a family meeting. A kind of intervention.
“I’ll be a few more hours,” she said.
“I love you so much, Joseph,” and then she was gone.
Darkness fell over the busy streets below my apartment, and with it came the rain. I watched in silence, waiting for a phone call, or a knock at the door, wondering about Reynald and his stupid punk ass decisions and how they would affect Sarah. I reached for my cell twice before actually calling her, but I only got her voice mail. Finally I fell asleep on the couch with the cell phone in my hand.
My ring tone yanked me out of a thin sleep early the next morning. My cell had fallen on the floor and I almost didn’t find it in time.
“Sarah,” I said. But it wasn’t Sarah. It was her friend Erica, and she was sobbing so hard I could barely understand her.
“I wanted you to know,” she told me. “I thought you should know first.”
“What is it?” I asked. “What happened?”
“It’s Sarah. Something happened. Something horrible.”
Sarah and her family staged an intervention for baby brother Reynald. They sat him down and he listened to them talk, dealt with their tears and their pleas for him to get help, to be better. He listened to it all silently, and then after they were done he stood up, went to his room, loaded a gun, and then shot each member of his family in the head. Sarah had been the last to die. He tortured her with a knife, and then he put the gun to his own head and spent the last bullet in the magazine.
I terminated the phone call and sat at the edge of my couch, staring at my hands. The silence in my apartment had teeth.
You will come to me, but not yet.
I jammed my fist into my mouth and screamed around it. I screamed until sound no longer came out of me, until I was as dry as old bones and my soul was utterly spent.
I had two months left on my apartment lease, but there was no way I could stay there, so I accepted the penalty and took what I could carry in both arms, and I got the hell out of the city. It occurred to me I was running away again, and that no matter where I went heartache followed. That was a kind of death, I think. Like slowly being eaten alive.
I had nowhere left to go but home. Within a couple days I was on a swather again, cutting alfalfa. Dad told me that he had hired enough help for the summer and fall, but I needed something familiar in my hands. When a man’s hands are empty and his mind is in a bad place, there’s no telling what he’s capable of doing. Reynald Gray taught me that.
The fields welcomed me. It was like returning to an old lover. There were hard words and bitter tears and even blood sown into that ground, but there was also a little magic there, and that’s what I needed to find.
I made an unspoken promise that I wouldn’t leave the farm again, and that was all right. Maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be.
Dad died within the month.
I was moving irrigation lines when he went, but I was told that he went peacefully.
Mom cried, and so did I. A man should cry for his father. After the medical examiner took away my dad’s body, Mom asked me if I had seen that little girl running through the field. She had a black dress and hair the color of dandelions.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t see her.”
The seasons bled into each other after that. Time is a wheel and we’re all just monkeys hanging from it. I kept myself busy, but there were times when the wind would blow at night and I would lay there listening to it, and I would think about the people I loved and the people I missed the most. Little things, you know, details that shouldn’t be forgotten. The way Sarah used to bite her bottom lip when we made love. The way Danny used to dance sometimes in the rain. The way Dad used to sing sometimes while washing dishes with Mom.
It’s the little details of the people you care about most that remain. These are their ghosts. And they haunt me.
When Mom died, she was eighty-eight years old. She held my hand as she slipped away, and she never said a word about a little girl in a black dress. For that I was relieved.
I’m alone now. Just me and these fields and the voices that come and go with the wind. I’ve got guys who stay on at the farm now to help, and I would call some of them my friends. But none of them fill the empty places.
I’m fifty-one years old. An old fart. I’ve never married and I’ve never fallen in love again either. That part of me I gave to Sarah long ago, and she took it with her to the grave.
I look for the little girl sometimes when I’m out in those fields. She’s out there somewhere. Waiting for me.
You’ll come to me, but not yet.
I’m almost ready, I think.
No one knows how many days a man is given after he enters this world. Maybe somewhere those things are written down, but it’s better not to know. There will come a day when I see that little girl, when I hear her call my name, and I’ll take her hand willingly enough. Where she goes there are people that I love, and they are waiting for me. I’m not afraid anymore. So I’ll go with her, and I won’t complain.
But not yet. There’s still hay to rake, and the wheat is coming on. And it looks like rain.
Sean Ealy has been writing since he was ten — when he first discovered an ancient Hermes typewriter in the garage — and he’s been lost in the words every since. His fiction has appeared in Under the Bed, Jersey Devil Press, and Menda City Review. Native Oregonian and avid Red Sox fan, he sometimes blogs at seanealyfiction.com or you can find him on Twitter @SeanEaly.