Printed from https://shop.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1977013-A-Secret-Worth-Keeping
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Mystery · #1977013
3 friends share a life-altering secret on the 3rd of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
A Secret Worth Keeping
Carol St. Ann

Approx 2750 words

Tommy couldn't wait to get out of his damned dirt-water town. Saturday was nearly here, and it was comin' in fast and low, bringin' success or failure, life or death. He winced and wiped burning beads of sweat from his eyes. Blinding rays of sunlight beat down upon him with relentless abandon. He yanked off his cowboy hat and slapped it against his jeans. A small cloud of dust flew off it and right into Ruby's path.

         "Shoot, Tommy!" She flapped her hands across her face and batted her eyes in squinted spasms. "Look what you gone and done. Now I'm even dirtier 'n I was b'fore."

         Tommy laughed and scrunched his nose. "Not possible, Little Sister. Nothin' can get you dirtier 'n muckin’ stalls." He kept on at a quick pace while he peeled his shirt from his body like a banana skin. Then he crumpled it and used it to wipe his face and upper chest. "But if you want you can clean it off with this." He raised it to throw at her, but stopped to swipe his armpits. "Catch!"

         Ruby jumped back. "Ewww. You are so disgustin'. You are one disgustin' boy. Sometimes I wish I’d a been born to some other family."

         "Oh hush. Some folks around here think I'm what ya call sexy. Besides, you're just mad because you can't take your shirt off, too."

         "Sexy? You? Well, woop-dee-doo. I wouldn't be in such a awful mood if you hadn’t ‘a stole my lunch."

         "Man's gotta eat."

         Ruby yanked open the screen door and stepped past him, her palm to his face. "Puh! You ain't no man, you're a ho--  Hi, Momma. Sorry we're late. Tommy's fault. He took his sweet time balin' the hay. Were you worried about us?" She kissed Momma on the cheek. "Dinner ready yet? I'm starving."

         Momma threw up her hands and shooed them back out onto the porch. "Oh no. Not on my clean floor. Outside. Both of you. Wipe yourselves off. And leave your shoes out there." She followed them to the door, glanced back over her shoulder, and spoke in a hushed whisper. "Hurry up now. Dinner's on the table and Poppa's got himself all worked up again on account a' you two being late from chores all the time. Now, mind yourselves, and don't set him off."

         Tommy smirked. Like they could avoid that. Just the sight of him and Ruby set the old man off. He looked at them like they were vermin, 'stead of his own children. Soon enough it wouldn't matter no more. He and Ruby were gonna hook up with Liam and get out of this town for good. All they had to do was make it to the weekend. As long as Ruby kept her mouth shut, it would all be fine.

         "I mean it, Tommy." Momma waggled her finger at him and stepped backward into the house, the screen door creaking like a broken-hearted bullfrog. "Ain't you tired of having to explain all the time? Ain't you tired of everybody thinking you're a pair of clumsy oafs?"

         Tommy huffed. "Nah. Besides, no one believes them stories we make up about fallin' and bumpin' into things. Face it, Momma. Ever'body knows."

         "Everybody don't know nothin.'" She reached inside and grabbed a tee shirt from atop her laundry basket. "And, for the love of all that's holy, put this on before you come to the table."

         Ruby rolled her eyes at him and followed Momma inside. "Just come to the table."

         Momma was the last one to sit down. "The preacher dropped by today," she said, lowering her eyes. "There's been news. A tragedy for the McAvery family. Seems their boy, Liam, has up and died."

         Poppa glared at Momma like an angry teacher instructing a repugnant child. "Tell it like it is. No need to sugar coat it. Word is, Liam went and killed himself. And right after church, too. I always said that boy was one egg short of a dozen." He smacked his lips and shook his head with the righteous indignation Tommy hated so much, especially from him.

         Ruby's eyes glassed over and her expression went flat. "He's. Dead. Oh. My lord. That's. Terrib-"

         "Hush, girl." Poppa turned his angry dark eyes on her. "I won't hear no more about it. The boy's gone. That's it. Left his things on the big boulder where the deer path meets the lake and drowned himself." Now, you just pass the black-eyed peas and let’s get on with our meal." He looked at Tommy and sucked at his teeth. "You got somethin' to say, Boy?

         "I was just wonderin'. . . What'd the note say?"

         "Weren't no note."

         "What? But there was supposed to be a... I mean, suiciders always leave a note. With their reasons and all."

         Ruby looked at Tommy through squinted eyes.

         "Never mind," he said and went back to eating.

         "Anyway," Momma went on as though Poppa and Tommy hadn’t ‘a said a thing, "the preacher said he'll come for dinner on Sunday. Oh, and Ruby, he said he thought he saw you and Liam walkin' down the deer path the other day. Looked like you were crying. Is that true? What on earth could you be crying to Liam about?"

         “Yeah, what do you have to cry about?” Tommy thought Ruby was foolish to follow after Liam the way she did.

         “What do you know about it?” Ruby pushed her food around the plate with her fork and never looked up. “You don’t even know me. I got my reasons.”

         “Shut up. No you don’t. You just lookin’ for attention, is all.”

         Momma turned toward him. “Leave her alone, Tommy. You know it wouldn’t hurt for you to take an interest in her. She is your sister, after all.”

         “Don’t remind me.”

         Ruby turned toward her mother and offered a half smile. "What was you sayin’ Momma? Oh, uh, yeah. It was me Preacher saw. Um, Liam wanted to show me he found a new, better place to catch fish." She put the fork down and sat very still. Her chin quivered and she bowed her head. "Can we say a prayer for him, Poppa?"

         Poppa slammed white-knuckled fists down on the table and the dishes rattled. "No. No prayin' for a suicider. You hear me." He leaned forward and pointed the prongs of his fork toward Ruby. "That boy's hell bound now. Hell bound for sure." He leaned back and shoved a forkful of food into his mouth. "Mmmmm mmm, boy howdy, Momma. This is one good meal. Ain't it good, Tommy? Tell your Momma how good it is. She worked all mornin'," he said, with a hard smack to Tommy's shoulder. “Ruby, eat up. You ain’t touched a single bite. You’re getting so thin and pale. Let me look at your eyes, girl.”

         Ruby slipped her hand into her jeans pocket. Tommy'd seen her shove some white pills in there before they'd gone out to do their chores. He'd meant to get them from her.

         “I’m all right,” Ruby muttered. “Just not hungry, that’s all.”

         Tommy forced his best broad smile. "Oh yeah, Momma. It sure is good. Real good. Can I have another biscuit please?"

         His face heated. Memories of childhood, of a red bike with a broken bell, ran through his mind like a double feature. His middle hollowed out with yearning.

Liam's house had always been warm and welcoming, and it had smelled of cookies and coffee. His mom would make them baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread and they'd chugalug still-warm fresh milk from the bucket they'd just carried in from the barn. They'd hop on their bikes and pretend they were Speed Racer, flying through the center of town and up over the ridge, shirts wide open, wind blowing in their faces. To the woods, down the deer path, all the way to the lake.

Their friendship almost ended that day when they was 15. They cut Algebra Day at school to go fishing. That was when Liam first told him the secret. Tommy burned with rage, figuring Liam was makin' fun of him. He grabbed hold of Liam and punched him square on the jaw. He hated the thought Liam was leading Ruby on. Even a best friend got no right to mess with a body's little sister. He pinned Liam down and drew back his fisted hand to finish him off when stunned eyes softened and gave way to the real meaning behind Liam's confession.

It hit Tommy like a freight train. Liam not only knew about Tommy; he was the same way. Tommy felt like a horse's ass, just like Ruby always says he is. Everything changed for the three of them right then and there. Tommy and Liam hooked up, and Ruby covered for them whenever she could. He and Ruby never discussed the secret, but neither of them ever told anyone else either. And now, escape was just days away. Everything was gonna be all right. Come Saturday the two of them were gonna leave and never come back.

The ticking of the kitchen clock beat in Tommy’s ears like a rock band had taken up residence in his head and snapped him back to the here and now. Somehow the air got sucked from the room and took color and light with it. Damn, escape was so close. If Ruby blew this, far as he was concerned, there'd be no redemption.

         Momma's sparkling eyes always calmed Tommy. She held the basket while he picked out a biscuit. He took a bite and forced himself to smile like his world wasn't a hair's breadth away from implosion. "Poppa, I finished balin' the hay. If you want, I can help plow those last five acres in the lower forty." If Ruby was going to start blubbering, best thing would be to get Poppa out of the house. He and Liam had worked too hard on making everything just right to risk messing things up now. If Poppa caught even an inkling they were runnin' off, it's for sure he'd do the deed everyone thought was already done. And no one would ever know the difference.

         Ruby looked at Tommy, stunned disbelief etched on her tear-streaked face. “What are you saying? Don’t you have any feelings? Your best friend just killed himself. What’s the mat—“

         “Shut up, Little Sister. It’s like Poppa says. Suiciders is hell bound.” The words cut his soul as they spewed from his mouth.

         “Don’t call me Little Sister. I hate that.”

         “Since when?”

         “Since ever.”

         Momma heaved a heavy sigh. “She’s always hated it.” She stood and collected the dinner plates. “Children, please. Can’t you even try to get along? Just for one day? Ruby, go on upstairs and wash your face. Tommy … just … go help your father.”


         Momma burst through the screen door, raised her hands skyward, and jumped up and down on the porch. Tommy pulled his shiny new pick-up next to the house, and Ruby jumped out before he’d turned off the engine.

         “Momma!” She wrapped her arms around the old woman, a bunch of daisies in each hand. She held out one bunch. "Here, Momma. These are for you."

         Tommy stood back and smiled at the warm exchange between the two women he loved most in the world. Momma had really aged since Poppa passed. And she had stopped dyeing her hair. He glanced about the farm. It would take a lot of work to get things back in order. He’d rehang that barn door and mend the fence while he was home, but he’d hire someone to fix the roof. Good thing Poppa had the sense to leave some money for her to stay on.

         The three made their way into the kitchen, Momma in the middle, her arms wrapped around their waists. Tommy and Ruby sat at their usual places. Except for an unusual amount of dust and grime, everything was just as they had left it three years ago. Momma turned to put a kettle of water on the stove, and slipped a straggle of hair behind her ear.

         When tea was ready, she took her place at the foot of the table and reached for each of their hands. “I know I look awful. You shouldda given me more notice you were coming. I might have missed you. Been goin' over to the McAvery's a lot lately. Ol' Siobhán hasn't never been right. Still waits for them to come and tell her they've found Liam's body. Poor thing, losin' her boy like that." Momma shook her head. "That terrible incident ain't never left this town." She took a deep breath and offered a weak smile. "Well, never mind that. How long will you children be stayin’?”

         Tommy stroked her swollen arthritic fingers. “Not long, Momma. We met up in Memphis and decided to drive out and see how you doin’.”

         "That's right, Momma," Ruby said. "We'll stay over, if that's all right, but I need to leave tomorrow to get back for work on Monday. Tommy's going to stay for a couple days though."

         "That's right," Tommy chimed in. "I'd like to stay on until Thursday evening. Spend some time out here with you. And I can take care of some things need fixin', okay? I'll call Peterson to patch that old barn roof until I can arrange for a new roof for it. I can't stay longer, I need to be in the City on Friday morning."

         "Are you sure you'll make it all the way back on time?"

         "With plenty of time. My flight goes straight through to New York."

         Ruby set her cup into its saucer. "Yeah, can you believe that, Momma? Here I am goin’ two states over, to Louisiana, and I have to fly all the way out to Georgia first. My flights will take all day. Tommy's crossin' over the whole half of the country and he'll get home faster. Isn’t that crazy?" Ruby shook her head.

         Momma huffed and shook her head, too. “Ya'd think if they could put a man on the moon… Well, never mind that. You’re both here now. Still, I wish you could stay longer. It gets terrible lonely at times. I was wondering," Momma said, her voice turning flat with hopelessness, "will you go to your father’s grave? Pay respects?”

         Tommy looked out the window. The barn door slapped lightly in the warm breeze. The sunset in full glory, glowed bright red over the yonder ridge of his childhood. “No, Ma'am. I won’t be doin’ that.”

         “Me neither, Momma.” Ruby sat tall and threw back her auburn hair.

         Tommy's eyes grew wide. "Geeze, Ruby. You've sure gained some weight."

         "Hush Tommy," Momma said, tapping his hand. "She's--"

         "I'm not fat, Tommy." Ruby pursed her lips. "I'm pregnant."

         "You are? Well we had a two hour drive out here from the airport. You couldda said you and your big city husband were expectin'." Tommy never missed an opportunity to push Ruby's buttons, and this one wasn't lost on him. "That why he married you?"

         "Funny, Tommy. Real funny. Anyway, do you care?"

         Tommy shrugged. "A little. So, which one of us you gonna ask to be godfather?"

         Ruby kicked Tommy under the table.

         Momma adjusted herself in her chair and curled her lips inward. There was a moment of silence, and then she nodded toward the other bunch of daisies. “I thought they might be for your father.”

         “Oh. Um, no,” Ruby said without apology. “I plan to take a walk and leave them along the deer path, if that’s all right.”

         ”The deer path? But why, child. Oh, I see. Of course. In memory of Liam.”

         ”No, Momma. Just a remembrance of carefree younger days. I think I’ll linger there for a while.” Ruby smiled and stroked Momma’s hair while they gazed deeply into each other’s eyes.

         Tommy nodded toward the fire red in the sky. "Better get going then. Remember how dark it gets out here."

         Ruby smiled, stood up, and leaned in to kiss Momma's head. She turned to Tommy and mouthed silent words. "You can do this." She grabbed the heavy metal flashlight from the pantry and left, raising her shoulders to her ears with the creak and slam of the old screen door. “Sorry.”

         Tommy held onto Momma's hand and craned his neck for a better view outside. He smiled at the dust cloud Ruby stirred up as she walked down the drive to the road. He turned to Momma and hopped his chair closer to hers. She wouldn't mind. Her floor wasn't freshly cleaned today. "Momma." He scrunched down so his head was lower than hers and looked deep into those soulful brown eyes. "Momma, there's something I’ve got to tell you."


© Copyright 2014 Carol St.Ann (bookmeister at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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