November 1, 2014

FICTION: "FLITTERY" BY DALLAS GORBETT


Although Dallas Gorbett now resides in the warmer climate of Mississippi, he was born and raised near Greensburg, IN. Recently, he had three flash fiction pieces appear in the local anthology Stories and Poems of the OLLI Writers but, beyond that, Flittery represents his first return to an earlier unfulfilled desire to write. The fact that this first outside publication is in a journal grounded in Indiana is especially satisfying. 
 

FLITTERY

    Westport, Indiana is a small town about 60 miles southeast of Indianapolis. The most excitement the constable had was running a speed trap at the edge of town on Highway 3. It really wasn’t his fault he overlooked the witness at the double homicide.
The county sheriff and a deputy had just arrived when the mother of one of the victims came running up the broken sidewalk. Screaming.
    “Cheryl! Cheryl! What’s happened? Where’s my daughter?”
    The deputy was barely able to stop the woman before she stormed into the shabby, four room house.  He grabbed her and held her like she was his own mother, “No. You can’t go in there. You don’t want to go in there.”
    The woman looked at the stranger holding her with a mixture of disbelief and the beginnings of anger. Before she could tell the man to take his hands off of her, the constable came out the door and spoke to her, “Mrs. Shaw, you can’t go in there. There has been a problem. We’ve got to figure it out.”
    “What do you mean . . . problem? Is Cheryl okay? Jim? You’ve known me a long time. Is . . . has he hurt her? Is he drunk, again?”
    “Come sit in my car. I’ll tell you what we know.”
    “I don’t want to sit in a car. What about Billie Joe?”
    The constable’s face blanched and he hurried back to the door. “Sheriff, Sheriff, there should be a little boy in there somewhere!”
    While the constable stayed with the distraught woman, the deputy ran into the house and after a few minutes of heavy footsteps and doors opening, it got quiet. The sheriff came back out to the constable and the woman. He asked her, “Do you know the little boy?”
    “I’m his grandmother. I take care of him most days.”
    “If I take you in, do not look towards the kitchen. Do not touch anything. Your grandson is hiding under a bed. I don’t want to drag him out. Will you see if he will come to you?” She nodded and he turned to the constable, “Give me a minute while I hang a blanket over the kitchen doorway.”
    A few minutes later the grandmother and boy were sitting in the back of the constable’s car. The child had been pretending to be asleep in the far corner under the bed. As soon as his grandmother spoke his name, he crawled to her; never opening his eyes. The constable slowly drove the two blocks to the Shaw house. As she got out, the boy’s grandmother asked, “Do you think he saw or heard?”
    The man who typically only dealt with speeders, not with the worst that two people can do to each other, replied, “A neighbor called me because she heard the screams and shots. He,” nodding at the boy, “was right there, in the house.”


    The boy’s nightmares slowly receded. He had usually been a happy boy despite the frequent fights and yelling matches he had heard between his parents. Because they were both dead, he was never forced to tell what he saw or heard.
Billie Joe was a good child. Slender with sun bleached light brown hair. Summer freckles, of course. Maybe a bit small for his age, but he had enough energy that he seemed bigger.  
His grandparents sold the house in town, where they had stayed to be close to their daughter, and moved a few miles to the east. The new place had large yards in front and in back. The backyard edged up to a tiny unnamed stream that fed into Panther Creek. During spring rains, Billie Joe was warned not to go near the little fast-running stream, but during the mid and late summer the stream became a small trickle that even he could jump across. Normally, though, he liked to jump short of the other side so that he splashed himself. Grandma couldn’t fuss, he reasoned, if it was an accident he got muddy.
Grandpa planted a vegetable garden in back. Billie Joe didn’t care for the work of pulling weeds, but he liked to watch everything grow. And, he liked watching the bees and butterflies go from plant to plant. Grandma planted flowers in front. Peonies, roses, mums and, although Grandpa said they belonged in his garden, sweet peas.
That first summer and fall they had tomatoes and carrots and potatoes and sweet corn and butter pickles, all from the garden. The kitchen table usually had some flowers from “Grandma’s front half.” With the first winter, came snow and sledding at Aunt Carol’s. She had a great, long hill and she said, with a wink at Billie Joe after the first good snow, “It’s a shame there’s no little boy to come sled down it.” So, the next morning, Uncle Stacy picked up Billie Joe and he got to spend the day zooming down the hill, inches above the ground. As he sped down the hill, Uncle Stacy would yell, “Look at Billie Joe fly,” and they all laughed.
The next spring brought showers and garden work on pretty days. Eventually, spring splashed into summer and Billie Joe and his Grandma got a surprise one day as they approached the little stream out back. Just as they neared the bank to the stream, there was a puff of yellow and a cloud of yellow butterflies was in the air above the water. “They’re Flitteries,” said Grandma. “I know there’s an official name, but Ma always called them Flitteries.”
During the winter, Billie Joe had been introduced to the little library in the Westport Community Center Building. “Can we go to the library and get a book about them? Please? Today?”
“I don’t know if we can go today. My car is acting up. Maybe,” said Grandma. And, later, they did go to the library. They found just the right book all about butterflies. On page thirty-six were pictures of the Flitteries they had seen. They were called Clouded Sulphur Flitteries. The book told Billie Joe, “Clouded Sulphur caterpillars are bright green with a dark black stripe and two light side stripes. When the caterpillars are fully grown, they form a chrysalis. And, if it’s ready, the butterfly – the Flittery – comes out and spreads its wings. And, it finds its friends and they gather at small shallow pools of water to get moisture.” There were pictures that showed all about it.
They took the book home and for four nights Grandma had to read the part about Clouded Sulphur Flitteries to Billie Joe for his night story. By the fifth night, Billie Joe read the pages to Grandma – even if he didn’t always look at the right words as he said them.
On Saturday, Grandpa worked on Grandma’s car because it wouldn’t start. At lunch he said he had to go into town and buy a new starter and did they want to go with him? Grandma said, “Yeah, it’s time to take the butterfly book back to the library.”
Just as Billie Joe wound up to fuss, Grandma turned to him and said, “You know it has to go back, so other boys and girls can read it. Don’t fuss. Go get your favorite shirt, and we’ll go.” Billie Joe had discovered a tee shirt he hadn’t noticed before that was bright green with dark and light stripes and had worn it almost daily since reading about the Flittery’s caterpillar.
As Grandma was starting to get Billie Joe’s car seat out of her car, Grandpa said not to bother. “The boy’s almost big enough and I’ll drive carefully. It’s not far.” He put the old starter on the backseat floor below Billie Joe’s feet and made sure he was strapped in tightly.
Billie Joe was looking at page thirty-six one more time and didn’t see the car come flying though the historic covered bridge just outside of Westport. It was going far too fast to manage the curve right after leaving the bridge. Suddenly, Grandpa’s side of the car was hit and the car was thrown over the side of the road, almost into the creek below. The old starter on the floor flew up, bounced off Billie Joe’s leg and flew into the front see. Now Billie Joe’s leg was bloody and hurt. It hurt a lot. He got his seat belt loose and managed to reach over the back of the front seat. He wanted Grandma to tell him it would be alright. And, he screamed. And, he shut his eyes, again.
***
While the little boy was unconscious, they took him to the county hospital in Greensburg and set the leg. Because he had been wearing the bright green tee shirt, they put a child friendly bright green wrap over the cast.
When he next opened his eyes, the first thing Billie Joe saw was the bright green covering. At first he thought it was only on his leg, but he realized it was over his entire body. Then he realized he couldn’t really hear voices plainly, they were muffled, and everywhere he looked it was fuzzy, like there was a thin soft blanket between him and everything. That was probably what it was like inside a chrysalis; where nothing could hurt you.
***
Weeks later, Carol, Billie Joe’s aunt, stood talking to the doctor. “What’s wrong? You say everything checks out. He should be able to hear. He doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even look at us. What’s wrong?” It was a small hospital, and they recommended the boy be transferred to the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
The young doctor sighed. He knew the woman had been there, at least, a few hours every day since she had buried her parents. It was unlikely she would be able to make the hour-plus trip daily to Indianapolis. Finally, unsure of how he would do it, the doctor said, “Listen, his leg is healing well. It wasn’t a serious break. It’s healing fast since he is only laying there.” The boy just laid there. He never wiggled or turned. The staff had to turn him to keep sores from developing. “We’ll keep him here another week, maybe ten days, and take the cast off. If nothing develops, we’ll have to send him to Riley. That’s the best I can do.”
Carol’s husband, Stacy, held her. She was worrying herself sick. She was losing weight and hardly ate. She felt Billie Joe was all she had left of her family. Within a little over two years she had lost her sister and now her parents. It had been a few days before the accident that she had very cautiously approached her parents about Billie Joe coming to her house more often as the grandparents got older. Stacy knew she understood that their nephew would get much better treatment in Indianapolis, but it was like losing another family member.
    Finally, she nodded and laid her head against Stacy.
    The doctor put off removing the cast for the full ten days. Even if he had to pay what the insurance company wouldn’t, he felt he had to. Since the boy didn’t move, squirm or giggle, removing the cast was easy. As he laid the last piece of cast aside, the nurse gasped, “Look. He’s moving.”
    Indeed, the patient that had hardly moved an inch over the last weeks was moving arms and legs. He twisted his neck as he inspected his outstretched arms. He was taking deep, deep breaths and sighing. With one very long stretch, he laid back and a bright happy smile split the previously empty face.
    “Billie, Billie Joe, can you hear me?” the doctor asked with a hushed voice.
    “Sure. I can hear you fine, now.” He again admired his bare arms. “I’m pretty, ain’t I? I like yellow.”
***
    Since it was summer time, the doctor at Riley encouraged the young boy to go outside and play in the fenced grounds. The boy’s Aunt Carol stood next to the doctor and watched through the window. BJ, as he responded to now, looked like a normal boy unless you watched closely. He didn’t play on the slide or other playground equipment. He seemed to bounce from place to place. Sometimes he would suddenly change direction for no cause. Or, he would stop and seem to just breathe, even hunching his shoulders with the breaths.
    “He eats well. He talks to us. He knows you are his Aunt Carol. In short, he is healthy. That doesn’t change the fact he thinks he’s a butterfly.”
    “But, how? It seems that he would know that a butterfly doesn’t have an Aunt Carol?”
    The doctor sighed the same way the young doctor in Greensburg had sighed when he was on the verge of admitting he didn’t know what to do. “The human mind, especially in the young, can hold conflicting images and not have a problem with it. Especially, if the images protect the person from possible danger or pain.
    “We have a very good psychologist that travels to the Greensburg Mental Health Center twice a week. As long as you agree to have him talk to BJ a couple times each week, I see no reason he can’t go home with you.”
    “School,” asked Stacy from behind Carol. There was a little bit of fear in his voice.
    “No. Not yet. Let’s get him settled and have some counseling before we approach that.”
***
    Thanksgiving came and went. BJ continued to be happy playing by himself. He talked a little more often to Carol and Stacy. One day, as they were going home from one of the visits with the doctor at the Center, BJ said, “All my little friends have left. I’m the only Flittery left.” When Carol asked if that made him sad, he didn’t reply – just looked out the car window at the empty fields. Finally, he asked, “Will you always be my friend?” Tears sprung to Carol’s eyes. She pulled into the next driveway. She loosened her seatbelt and reached over and hugged BJ as tightly as she could, “Yes, BJ. Always.”
    “Okay,” was his quiet answer. And, he did that rise and lower thing with his shoulders that she had come to recognize as “stretching his wings.”   
    At Christmas they didn’t know what to get BJ. After a lot of back and forth talk, Stacy said, “I’m getting him little boy stuff. Toys, candy, games. Stuff I wanted when I was a boy. I’m getting him a new sled.”
    Christmas was a perfect White Christmas morning. BJ had, as was his habit, looked out the window as soon as he was out of bed. Next, he ran to the kitchen, but pulled up short at the Christmas tree in the living room.
    There was a brand new snow sled – longer than he was tall. He stood and looked at it a few moments. Then he turned to Carol and Stacy and said, “When I’m sledding, it’s okay to call me Billie Joe.”

~Dallas Gorbett


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