Peace and Love

Fiction
Pamela Mosher


I stay out too long with the horses.

I ride Jasper all afternoon. The sky fills with dark clouds while he is pounding up the hill behind the McCord’s farmhouse. McCord’s horses follow us. When we reach the top, they paw the ground and whinny before turning back to their fields. I hang on to Jasper’s warm neck, his wiry mane against my cheek, and press on.

When the first streak of lightning slices through the sky, Jasper is splashing through the shallow creek that marks the border with the MacIntyre place. I count the seconds. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. When the loud crack comes, I know the electrical storm is at least three miles away. Still, it’s loud enough to startle me, and Jasper’s head snaps up.

He whinnies softly when I urge him on. I want to ride through the grove of apple trees to the fence line at the far side of the Johnson Farm. I need to go. I haven’t been in weeks.

From Jasper’s back, I pick small green apples right off the trees. I’m growing, I realize. Two months ago, I couldn’t have reached them. Jasper drops his head and eats a few that have fallen on the ground. They give off a lemony, sharp scent. The apples are tart and wormy; I’m careful to look for the telltale brown holes in the skin. After I eat around the core and the worm trails, I send the apples flying over the fence and into the shallow pond. An old tire hangs over the pond from a rope tied to a tree branch. The apple cores hit the tire and land in the pond with a satisfying sploosh.

The first few drops splatter against my bare legs as we are stalking through long grasses in Johnson’s hayfield. The tops of the grasses tickle my bare feet and ankles. We reach the far fence, where I can see the old house. I slide off Jasper and hide in the bushes. Spy.

There’s a tricycle in the driveway. It’s bright blue plastic with orange wheels. Long plastic tassels hang from the handlebars. The new kid is running up and down the cracked pavement. His mother stands with her arms crossed, talking to one of the neighbors, watching out of the corner of her eye. My chest aches, and a strange hiccup of grief leaves my throat. The mother shields her eyes, looks right at me.

“Is someone there?” she asks.

I hold my breath and close my eyes, wanting to disappear. Praying to be invisible.

When I open my eyes again, the mother and kid are gone. They’ve left the tricycle in the driveway.

My face is wet. Drops splash against my cheeks, and rain is pouring off the top of the cap and down the back of my sweatshirt.

When I can’t stand it anymore, I climb the hill to Jasper. We slop back through the wet grasses and over the now muddy hill, my legs grappling to hold on to his slick, wet back.

WHEN I COME IN the house, Theresa shoos me out of the kitchen. “You’re dripping water everywhere,” she says, waiving a striped dishtowel. “I just cleaned this floor.”

I dance around a bit to keep the muddy water off the linoleum. Instead, it plops around in gray droplets. Theresa shakes her head and moves her heavy body to the closet for a rag.

I grab a bottle of Coke from the fridge, and hand it to her. She pops off the metal top and hands it back.

“Can we have Spaghetti O’s for dinner?”

“No. Your father is having company.” She flaps the dishtowel again, and I skip away.

“What company?” I hang onto the doorjamb and swing my head back into the kitchen. I balance on one foot; the other, splattered with mud, I stick straight out behind me. Well out of Theresa’s sight.

“Some lady. You should go change.”

I ignore that last comment. “What lady?”

“How should I know? They’ll be here any minute.”

“Some new girlfriend,” I say, taking a long pull on my Coke. The carbonation burns the back of my throat and makes my eyes water.

Theresa ignores me. She pretends not to get involved in our messy family life. But I know she watches everything with a disapproving eye.

I do not go change.

When James arrives, it is still raining. He and his friend dash from his Jeep into the house with newspapers tented over their heads. The woman stops laughing when she sees me, lurking behind the bookcase. She swipes a hand across her cheek, brushing back long strands of dark brown hair. Her wrist is a-jangle with beaded bracelets, and her shirt is crocheted and wide at the bottom. Her belt is woven from various strands of wool in a rainbow of colors.

“Hello,” she says, smiling. “James, you didn’t tell me you had a daughter.”

“He forgot.”

“This is Lucy,” James tells her. He flashes me a dirty look.

I think, Ah. James remembers my name.

She sticks out her hand. “Peace and love, Lucy. I’m Kathy.”

I don’t shake her hand until James comes around and gives me a little push. Her hand is warm and soft as it enfolds mine.

“Are you a student?”

“Yes.” She laughs. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess.” All of James’ girlfriends are students. I think he runs a regular ad in the University paper. Wanted: Sweet Young Thing With No Expectations To Worship Brilliant Mathematics Professor.

James bends down and kisses me on the top of my head. For show. “Luce, you’re all wet,” he says. “Why don’t you go put something else on?”

“I’m wearing this.”

He frowns and turns to Kathy. “I can’t get her out of that old sweatshirt,” he tells her with a laugh. “You know kids.”

She smiles vaguely, and looks up at him out of the corner of her eyes. She’s in love with him, I can tell already. Even though he’s probably old enough to be her father.

James pokes his head in the kitchen. “Is dinner ready?”

“Yes, Mr. Roth.”

“I’m not hungry,” I say, but James is talking over me to Kathy as he steers me by the shoulders into the dining room. He’s telling her how horse crazy I am. I hate it when he talks about me like I’m not there, but I keep my mouth shut. Most of our conversations take place as though I am not there. Show and Tell conversations, I call them.

“Behave,” he hisses as he pushes me into my seat. He pulls out a chair for Kathy. “You sit here. I’ll get us some wine.”

“Wine is on the table, Mr. Roth,” Theresa says.

“On second thought, I think I need a scotch.”

“Mr. Roth,” Kathy says, eyeing my father in that sideways way again. “That sounds so funny. I’m used to Professor Roth.”

I think, Yes, Professor Roth. Faster, Professor Roth. I laugh at my own silent joke.

James flashes me a warning look. Kathy looks down at her hands.

Theresa puts my plate in front of me. Baked potato and corn. I know she wants me to pray before I eat, but she would never say anything in front of James about it. She wants me to sit up straight, too. I start shoveling in corn niblets as fast as I can, bent like the letter “C”, and she walks away, shaking her head.

James catches my eye, and I slow down.

He’s having roast beef. When Theresa tries to put a plate in front of Kathy, she shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t eat meat.”

This grabs my interest. “Why not?”

“I don’t believe in killing animals.”

I chew my nibblets, debating. Finally, I give in. “How come?”

“We want peace, right? Look at what is going on in the world today. Oh, thank you.” She shifts so Theresa can put a new, meatless plate before her. “I believe that to achieve peace, we must rid ourselves of all violence. Why should an animal suffer and die? This earth has provided all the food we need. Grains and fruits and vegetables are better for us, and do not violate our responsibilities as brothers and sisters to everything on this earth.”

“See?” James cocks an eyebrow at me. “You two have a lot in common.”

With new interest, I look over at Kathy. She’s pretty in a nervous sort of way. Big blue eyes and pale skin with no makeup. Her long hair hangs razor straight down her back, almost to her waist. I’m trying to grow my hair out, and hers is at least four inches longer. She’s wearing a silver peace sign on a chain around her neck.

“Mathematics is the key to peace, not vegetarianism. We’re made to eat meat. Look at our incisors.” James drains his scotch, pours himself a glass of wine. “Mathematics is the universal language. Math is truth. The only true religion.”

Kathy nods, not agreeing, I don’t think, but contemplating what he says. I hear Theresa slam a cupboard door, out in the kitchen. I roll my eyes. I think, if math’s the true religion, does that make you a god?

“Lucy, tell Kathy about Jasper,” James suggests, and she turns to me with an expectant smile.

“He’s a Bay,” I say, anticipating her blank look. “You know anything about horses?”

“A little,” she says. “I haven’t ridden in a long time. Not since I was your age. But I’d love to try it again.”

“Well, Jasper won’t let anyone else ride him.”

I wait to see if she’ll flash a knowing look at my father, but she doesn’t. She nods and waits for me to go on.

“He was injured before we got him.” I wonder why I’m bothering to tell her. “He broke through a barbed wire fence and was cut all over. The vet told James and he bought him for me.”

“Lucy’s done wonders with that horse. You’ve never seen two better friends.”

Kathy smiles at me, but I can guess what she’s thinking. I go back to my niblets.

They talk about math. I think, Can you believe these two? James is warm and open from the wine, tipping back in his chair, stroking his salt and pepper beard. He tells Kathy about the history of p. She has a dopey, aren’t-you-wonderful look as she listens. I’ve heard about Ptolemy and how Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth about a million times. But I can tell my father is really turning Kathy on because she keeps saying things like “fascinating,” and leaning over to touch his arm.

My body is itching beneath my damp sweatshirt. In the heat of the dining room, I can practically feel the steam rising from my chair. James gets warm and opens a window to let in some air. By the time I’m excused from the table, my body is one big wrinkled goose bump, and my nose is starting to run.

I AM AN INDIAN. I live off the land. I hunt with this spear I’ve fashioned from a long, thin tree branch. I eat clover flowers and wild asparagus and the rhubarb that grows all over our yard.

I stand in the irrigation ditch, brown water swirling around my knees, and peer along the pebbly riverbed for crawdads. My nose drips and my throat is sore, but that doesn’t stop me. Jasper munches tender grass by the bank, patiently waiting for me. His hide is scared from our many fights with hostile tribes.

Behind me is the fort of the white man, my sworn enemy. The white woman with the long hair has taken up residence. She padded around the kitchen this morning wearing nothing but the white man’s button down shirt and socks, making coffee. He complains that his head aches, but laughs when she pretends to tiptoe around him. When he thinks I’m not looking, the white man sneaks a hand beneath the tails and caresses her backside.

I stop, flawlessly still, the perfect hunter. Something moves. I plunge my hand in the murky water, and come up with my prize. A crawdad the size of a single canned green bean, its legs waving, its pinchers pinching.

KATHY COMES OUT WITH plates of sandwiches and lemonade. She places them on the patio table, and shields her eyes with one hand, looking for me.

I peer at her through long grasses, close to the ground like a snake. I can track deer by broken stems of grass, clues the white man cannot see. I will hunt my own lunch.

But my blue sweatshirt gives me away.

“Lucy, I made us lunch,” she says, spotting me. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Caught. I stand reluctantly and brush the dirt off my knees. “Thank you,” I say, all politeness to the enemy. I carry my can of murky brown water and crawdads to the patio table. She peers in and frowns, and I feel funny. Itchy. I’ll let them go after lunch.

Today, she’s wearing a pale yellow skirt with tiny blue flowers. Her long hair is loosely braided with a ribbon, and the sight of it makes me reach up and touch my own tangled mess. A twig is stuck in it, and I pull it out.

I sit down at the patio table and she moves a plate in front of me. She notices my curved-in posture, but doesn’t comment.

“Where’s James?” I ask between bites of super chunky and grape jelly. White man food.

“Writing.” She smiles indulgently. Still in the throes of adoration. I call it Stage One. I’ve seen five of my father’s girlfriends pass through Stage One since my mother died.

In Stage One, the girlfriend doesn’t resent that she’s stuck alone with the surly daughter all day. In Stage One, she tries to reach out to the poor, motherless girl. By Stage Two, she’ll realize that I am not the key to obtaining my father’s attention.

“I was thinking,” Kathy says. “After lunch, maybe I could meet Jasper.”

I shrug. My throat hurts. “You can’t ride him. I mean, he won’t let you.”

“Oh,” she says, “I won’t try to ride him.”

I chew silently.

“What grade are you in, Lucy?” Kathy asks after more silent bites.

I finish my sandwich. “Seventh.”

“In the fall?” she asks.

I nod.

“The middle of middle school,” she says. She plays with a chip. “The longest century of my life was middle school.”

This interests me. She’s so pretty, and her face is so open and wide-eyed, I would have guessed she sailed through school with a million friends.

“How come?” I ask.

“Oh, I guess because we moved a lot. I was always the new kid.”

“Me too. I mean, I was the new kid last fall. When we moved, we changed school boundaries.”

“That must have been tough.” Kathy leans forward. “Did you make any friends at your new school?”

I shake my head and I drink my lemonade. I think about how everyone whispered about me. I was the girl whose mother had died. The one they were supposed to be nice to. I didn’t know how to act. That’s when Theresa began noticing my posture. “Sit up, Lucy,” she would say, but I couldn’t. I only felt comfortable, safe, when my back was curved, my hands covering my belly.

She’s waiting for an answer, I realize, watching me curiously. Wanting to know if I’m Normal, probably. “Well, one kid. He’s got double jointed thumbs and elbows.”

“No kidding?”

I hold out my arm. “His arm bends way down like this.” I pull my wrist down so my arm bends at an unnatural angle. “By itself though.”

“I’d like to see that.”

I wipe my sleeve along my nose. “You can meet Jasper now. If you bring a carrot, you’ll probably make a friend.”

I LIE ON THE COUCH in front of the TV, while Kathy and James eat in the dining room. I can hear the clinking of metal against plates, the sound of ice dropping into a highball glass. Theresa brings me chicken and stars in a big University of Colorado mug. And a plate of wiggly jello. I watch The Partridge Family and sip my hot soup.

Kathy walks softly into the room, carrying a blanket, which she drapes around me. “How are you doing, Lucy?”

“Stubbed up.”

She hands me a Kleenex and I blow.

“I thought I could keep you company,” she says. “Your dad is working on his paper.”

“He always is.” I bend my legs so she can sit down at the other end of the couch. “You’ll get used to it.” Or not, I think.

“I don’t think it’s going very well. He seems upset.”

I think, it never goes well.

We sit for a moment, watching the TV. Then she turns to me.

“You like to play cards?” she asks.

I shrug. “I guess.”

She walks over to the armoire and opens the top drawer, pulling out a deck of cards. I get the feeling she planned this out before, and asked James where the cards were. “I can teach you this game called Go Jump in a Lake,” she says with a sly grin. “But it’s really fast.”

I sit up, interested. She teaches me the rules. You have to look for certain suits and pile cards one on top of another in this crazy way. When you see a card you want you slap the table. If the other person wants the same card and slaps the table first, you can ask them to trade. If they don’t trade, they tell you to Go Jump in a Lake.

She snaps off the TV and puts on a record. Joan Baez. Her favorite singer, she tells me.

I’ve never heard of her, but I nod. “Yeah, she’s pretty good.”

We start playing. Kathy slaps the cards down so fast they almost blur. Pretty soon we’re smacking the table and yelling “Go Jump in a Lake!” so loud James comes out to scold us, a glass of amber liquid in his hand.

“Keep it down, will you?” he asks, smiling, but I can tell he’s annoyed.

“Aye, aye, sir,” Kathy says, and my eyes just about pop out of my head. James turns around and walks out. We burst out laughing, fists pressed to our mouths.

KATHY AND JAMES ARE fighting. I can hear them even though I’ve turned the TV up loud and shut my bedroom door. From the sound of it, it’s mostly him mad at her. These past few months, it usually is.

This is Stage Two. Fighting. Girlfriend gets resentful of being stuck with the kid. She’s worried that he drinks so much. He can’t do his important work with her interrupting all the time.

I wait to hear her car roar out of the driveway, spewing gravel. Stage Three. Instead, the house gets silent. I turn off my TV and listen. Outside, the mid-morning sun is warm for fall; everything is yellow and orange and red. Cars drive by, slowly. Light, Saturday traffic. Finally, I get up and press my ear to the door. Then I open it slowly. Kathy stands there, her arm raised to knock.

“Oh, hi.”

“The three of us are going on a picnic.” Her tone is determined.

I back up until I feel the bed behind my knees, and then sink down. “We are?”

“Yes. We’re going to do something together for a change.”

I sit while she rifles through my closet.

“Where’s your blue sweatshirt?”

“On my chair.”

“Well, you want to wear it, right?”

I stand up and take the sweatshirt from her outstretched hand. Tears are streaming down her cheeks.

“Are you okay?”

“No. But I will be. We’re going to have a good time today.”

“You don’t have to take me. It’s all right.”

“No, it isn’t.” She sinks down next to me, and swipes a hand across her cheeks. “I want us to be together today. Like a family.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Wow.” I pull my head through the sweatshirt, and it sits bunched around my neck. I’m too stunned to put my arms through the sleeves. “You like me.”

A strangled, choking laugh erupts from her throat. “Of course I like you, Luce. What did you think?”

“You don’t have to. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. To James, I mean.”

She opens her mouth to argue, but what’s the point? She knows I know.

“Your father…” her voice trails off, and she’s looking across the room. I’m not sure if she’s looking at my drawings of Jasper, or at the leaves I’ve tacked all over the wall, or my map of the world with red pushpins everywhere I want to travel. “He’s been through a lot, with your Mom dying…”

I think, he was exactly like this before she died.

“He’s a brilliant man, and his mind is on so many things…”

“He’s a bastard.”

“Lucy!”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Don’t cry, Lucy.” She pulls me to her, and the sweatshirt is still bunched around my neck, except now it’s wet. “You’re a great kid, you know that? It isn’t you.”

I think, of course it’s me.

THERE IS NO PICNIC. By the time I stop crying and pull my arms through the sleeves, James is gone. He told Theresa he would be at the computer lab until late, and not to hold dinner for him.

Kathy and I go riding. Jasper is strong, and he holds us both fine. I take her through the apple grove, but there are hardly any apples left on the trees, except some wrinkled ones with mush spots all over them. We throw them in the pond anyway.

Finally I show her the old house. We slide off Jasper and lean against the Johnson’s split rail fence, and I point.

“That’s it.”

“The red brick?”

“Yeah.”

“Nice.” She swings up to sit on the fence. “You miss it.”

“Yeah.”

“You miss her.”

I nod, and swallow.

“The sweatshirt was hers?”

My mouth pops open, and then I snap it shut. “How did you know?”

“I just figured.”

“Don’t tell Dad. I mean, James. He thinks he threw everything away. This was in the hamper, and I told him it was mine.”

“I won’t tell him.”

“Kathy, are you going back to school?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why did you drop out?”

“Students and professors can’t date. It’s against the rules.”

“Oh. You didn’t want to get in trouble?”

“Not me. Him.” She leans her elbows on her knees and puts her chin in her cupped hands. “I never thought I’d be a college dropout, but look at me.”

“Maybe you two could get married. Then you could go back.”

She snorts. “Your dad doesn’t want to get married.”

“You don’t know. Look how pretty you are. And you’re smart too, and lots nicer than his last girlfriend.”

“He doesn’t even see me anymore. I’m becoming just another stick of furniture around the house. One he keeps banging his knee on and wants to get rid of.”

“I just try not to stick out,” I say.

THERE’S A LAYER OF ICE over the water in the trough, and Kathy and I go out every couple of hours and break it with long thick tree limbs so Jasper can drink. It’s cold and steel gray outside, like gunmetal. When we talk our breath freezes against our upper lip, and the trees creak and groan in the wind.

When we come back into the kitchen, Theresa has gone home. There is a band of light streaming from under the door of the den, but no sound. Hours ago, James disappeared in there with a glass of whiskey and strict orders that he not be disturbed.

Kathy and I slink through the kitchen, pulling off knit hats and shrugging out of our down coats. We clump into the living room.

“The tree looks dry.” She fingers it, and needles fall all over the red and green quilted skirt and brown carpet. “We need to take it outside or it’s going to die.”

It’s the first Christmas tree we’ve had since Mom died, and I love it. We used a live tree, and decorated with strung cranberries and popcorn and construction paper links. Our Christmas dinner was a meal like the Indians (or as Kathy calls them, “Native Americans”), would eat: squash and beans and corn. Kathy told me the Native Americans believe all living creatures are their brothers and sisters. We cooked the meal together so Theresa could be home with her own family. We gave thanks to Mother Earth and, so Theresa wouldn’t have a stroke when she heard, the “Christian God.” When James saw the menu, he didn’t join us.

“I go back to school tomorrow. New semester.”

“Me too.”

“What?”

She shrugs. “I’ve been trying to think of a way to tell you. I wanted to wait until after Christmas. Your dad and I, we don’t even talk anymore. And I need to get my degree.”

“No! Stay here. He hasn’t kicked you out or anything, has he?”

“He ignores me.”

“He ignores me too. You get used to it.”

“No. I can’t live like this. But I’m going to miss you, Lucy. You’re a great kid.” She reaches behind her neck and unhooks her necklace, presses it into my hand. “Here. I want you to have this.”

I stare at the silver peace sign. I think, you’re my best friend, and you’re leaving me. But I’m used to being left, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I run away.

WHEN THE WOMAN COMES to the door, I’m crying so hard I can’t get anything out. She pulls me in and shuts the door behind me.

“Are you hurt?” She tries to pull my arms gently from my stomach, but I’m curled in too tightly. With her fingertips, she turns me back and forth, probably looking for gushing blood or bones sticking through skin. “Harold! There’s a little girl who’s been hurt!”

I want to tell her that I’m not a little girl, I’m just short, but I’m crying too hard.

“Call an ambulance!”

A man appears, holding a newspaper, looking confused.

“Not hurt!” I manage between sobs.

The man and woman kneel in front of me, looking into my face. A kid, about five, wanders into the room. The owner of the tricycle. It makes me cry harder.

After a while I stop sobbing, and the man ambles off. I can hear him on the phone with the police. “She’s about ten years old. Skinny. Brown hair… What’s that? Reported missing? That’s a relief… No. She just came up and started banging on the door.”

Waiting for James to arrive, I’m calm, drinking hot chocolate in my old kitchen. “My mom makes great hot chocolate,” I’m telling the woman. “She’s a good cook, all vegetarian. And we play all kinds of games together.”

She nods. When the doorbell rings, she shuts her eyes for a second and exhales violently. Glad to be rid of me.

The adults shake hands, talk. James explains that we used to live in this red brick house. “I think Lucy really misses it,” he tells them. “But we have more land at our new house, and I got her a horse.”

Show and Tell conversation. The man and woman nod rapidly, glad to see everything is Fine. Normal.

The family stands together in the doorway and waves. “Goodbye, Lucy.”

James is silent as we bump along in his Jeep. We pull into the driveway and he makes to get out.

“Is she gone?”

He nods. “Yes.”

“I loved her.”

“It’s for the best, Luce. It wasn’t working out.”

“Are you home for dinner?”

He shakes his head. “I have to go the computer lab. Theresa will make you dinner. She’ll stay with you until I get home.”

The tree is sitting in the trash as we walk up to the front door. We go inside. Dry brown needles litter the carpet. I pinch a few, put them in my pocket. My finger touches the silver chain, and I pull out the necklace, put it around my neck, stroke the tiny silver medallion.

Peace and Love, sister.pencil

Pam Mosher lives in Colorado, and loves to write about her childhood which was spent wading in irrigation ditches and lying in her back on hot summer days, dreaming of fresh peaches and corn and summer squash and ripe tomatoes. Her work has also appeared in Romance Ever After. Contact her at pam_mosher[at]msn.com.