Over the River 5

Amanda’s mother comforted her daughter, as her father thanked Todd, who brushed off all attempts to pay back the favor. “Your family’s continued hospitality is the only reward I need.”

Alec had been a spectator during the incident, and followed the entire family as they returned to the house. The sun had descended below the tree line, and Grammie Alice’s sons, daughters, grandchildren, and in-laws across multiple generations soon gathered their coats and left in their cars. Stella and Alec had already agreed to be in charge of clean-up, and Alec spent close to an hour at the kitchen sink, up to his elbows in suds as he cleaned serving bowls, plates, and silverware too delicate for machine washing.

His hands slick and red from being long enclosed in yellow rubber gloves, Alec finally retreated into the living room. Stella had gone up with her mother to rest, the two women weary from a half day of preparation for that afternoon’s feast. Believing that all the day’s guests had departed, Alec expected to watch the evening football game alone for a while, until his wife came down and announced she was ready to leave.

But he was not alone. Sitting in the room’s largest armchair, the one Stella’s father had deemed his throne, was Todd. His eyes beamed delight at Alec’s entry.

“I didn’t want to leave today, without finishing our conversation.” There was a hint of a challenge in Todd’s voice that unsettled Alec.

“I… if I seemed a little too suspicious this afternoon, it was only because I wanted to make sense of the stories I was hearing about you. What you did for my niece this afternoon, went a long way to dismissing — ”

“Please.” Todd blinked, and waved a hand dismissively. “I took no offense at your questioning. I quite enjoyed it, in fact. Rarely do I meet someone, as perceptive as yourself.”

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Over the River 4

To Alec’s surprise, Todd seemed neither upset not defensive at the accusation. He pushed his plate forward, and folded his hands on the table. “I’m not accustomed to speaking about myself, as I’d much rather heat what others have to say. But if it would set your mind at ease, then please, ask me any question you’d like. I promise to answer as truthfully as possible.”

“All right. Let’s start at the beginning. Who was — ”

A sharp cry from outside interrupted their conversation. Alec sat up quickly, recognizing the voice of his niece Amanda. Her mother reached the front door before Alec, and the two of them raced into the yard, where children were gathered in a circle. Ignoring the stream of frantic explanations, Alec helped pull the children away to give room for his sister-in-law to attend to Amanda.

“Mom!” Amanda was writhing on the brown grass, her right hand grasping at her left shoulder. “It HURTS so MUCH!”

“Just breathe, dear.” Amanda’s mother helped the girl sit up, her arm lying useless at her side. Alec’s medical knowledge was limited, but he knew his niece’s shoulder was separated. Amanda’s father was soon at their side — “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll get you to a doctor.”

“If I may.” All eyes, young and old, turned in the direction of Todd. “The nearest hospital is twenty minutes away, and who knows how the emergency room will be staffed today. I know how to help your daughter — please, trust me.”

A swift survey by Amanda’s father revealed that none of the adults had medical training, and Grammie Alice knew of no doctors or nurses in the neighborhood. The girl was whimpering, and the car ride to the hospital promised further discomfort, followed by a disheartening wait. The father sighed, and waved Todd over — “You’ve done this before?”

Todd nodded as he stepped forward. “I’m a volunteer on overseas missions, and work with children like your daughter on a regular basis.” Todd knelt down beside Amanda, and encouraged her parents to hold the girl as he took hold of her shoulder.

He brushed hair from Amanda’s forehead. “You are going to feel a sharp pain, but it will go away quickly. I need you to relax your body, as much as possible. Can you do that for me?” Amanda nodded, her face contorted with pain and confusion, as Todd nodded to her parents and then grabbed the girl’s shoulder.

“YEEEEAAAAAH” Amanda’s scream was filled with more agony than anyone in the family had heard before, and the girl shot from her parents’ grasp. She stumbled forward two steps, turned back to Todd — and raised her left arm, crying now in relief rather than pain.

Over the River 3

“I told Alice how I’ve been coming here for Thanksgiving every year for a decade, since the year before Stella and I were married. The first year, it was just her parents and us. Year after, it was the entire family, like it’s been every year since. That’s how I met Stella’s sisters, brother, cousins — and you.” Alec fanned his fingers in Todd’s direction.

The older man wiped his chin with a napkin. “I don’t have a family of my own, Alec. I treasure your family’s hospitality.”

“The Andersons are a wonderful family. And I’ll do anything to make sure they are never harmed, or exploited.”

Todd arched his eyebrows. “Do you consider me a threat?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. For now, you’re a curiosity. I asked Alice today where she knew you from, and she told me you went to college with Gregory. He confirmed this when he arrived, but said that while you had graduated the same year, you had never actually met until these Thanksgiving dinners.”

“Ohio State is a large university, Alec. I’m sure your brother-in-law would have the same experience with thousands of alumni.”

“Certainly. But then Gregory told me how you had worked at the same company as Clarise, and believed she had invited you here initially. So I asked her, and she said yes you had worked together, but no, you’d never actually met there, and she hadn’t been the one to extend you an invitation. Then Norton overheard us, and said the two of you had worked on the campaign for Senator Brown. I was hardly surprised when I pressed for more information, and discovered you never actually worked together at that time.”

Alec leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve made it a point to ask every adult here today about you, Todd. How everyone knows you. And I’ve found a consistent pattern. You have some type of association with every one of them — a professional society, volunteer organization, a close friend. A shared experience which establishes a bond. And yet, nobody here has had any direct interaction with you outside of this home, this day. And, more significantly, nobody remembers who provided you with the initial invitation to Thanksgiving.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. “We know you, Todd, but don’t know a damn thing about you. And if you don’t mind me saying, I think it’s a little odd.”

Over the River 2

Alec stood from his chair, and after glancing at the living room and its empty sofa, shuffled to the seat at the far end of the table, between Umberto and this man they knew as Todd. His wife’s uncle, loud and outspoken at most times, had been subdued that afternoon and grown more withdrawn and distant with each bite of the heavy holiday meal, along with several glasses of wine.

“Bertie.” Umberto lifted his bald head slowly at Alec’s call. “You looked tired. You want to rest on the couch?” Umberto smiled, excused himself, and stumbled his way into the living room.

Todd lifted a fork from the table, and stabbed at the pecan pie on the plate in front of him. “Umberto’s a brave man, coming here today.” Alec agreed, commenting about the distance he had to drive, at least a couple of hours, as Todd continued eating his pie. Stella’s mother entered from the kitchen, and asked about Umberto; Alec waved towards the living room, and his mother-in-law left the two men at the table.

Alec shifted his seat closer to Todd. “Speaking of travelling, where’s home for you?”

Todd chuckled, and took another bite of pie before replying. “I’m staying at a Hilton just across town. Own a condo downtown, but I’m renting it out this month. Got condo’s all over the place, there’s no real place I call home.”

“That so?” Alec watched Todd eat his pie a moment. “Seems funny, a man who travels as much as you do, has his choice of where he could spend Thanksgiving — how you’re here, every year.”

Todd leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his amble stomach. “It’s the food. Grammie Alice — ”

“I had a conversation with her, about you. Today, in the kitchen, right after Stella and I arrived, and I saw you in the living room.”

Over the River 1

It’s been a long time since my last short story, and I’ve got an idea inspired by the upcoming holiday in the United States, as well as a poem I wrote last year.

“You kids have fun.” Alec leaned back in his chair and waved a hand towards the front door of his mother-in-law’s home. “You don’t need an old man like me slowing you down.” His son and his cousins forgot about Alec’s apology as they raced out of the room, choosing sides for their touch football game as they tugged on their jackets.

Alec tilted his chair back into position at the dining room. Stella’s sister had left for the kitchen during Alec’s discussion with the children, so Alec’s was one of three occupied seats of the eleven that had been arranged at the large oak table.He was seated toward the end closest to the bay windows looking out on the front yard; across the table at the other end, close to the kitchen doorway, was Umberto, smiling weakly as he had all that afternoon. Stella had been surprised her uncle had arrived for Thanksgiving, so soon after his wife’s passing, and Alec had been watching him all afternoon.

Sitting directly across from Umberto, three chairs away from Alec, was the man Alec was determined to have a private conversation with before leaving that evening.

“American politics is like a pendulum.” The man whom Alec knew as Todd waved his meaty hand over his gravy-strewn plate, swooping it down from his right and then back up near the center of the plate.We’ve swung over to an extreme this year, but political gravity will pull Washington back to the center, and then –” he swooped his hand back down, then over the plate — “we’ll be back to the other extreme.” Todd spoke with the cool confidence he expressed on any topic, from gardening to government, football to physics, and in years past Alec had regretted only hearing Todd speak this one day of the year (he never visited for the December holidays). But today, Alec found himself annoyed at Todd’s self-assurance.

Helping Hands, Conclusion

After his call ended, Quentin entered the living room and renewed his proposal to assist with the bedframe. Ven rose from his seat eagerly, and the two men set to the task. Their argument from before the call hung silently in their air between them, like a humid summer evening.

Bonnie-B and the children arrived as the last of the frame was assembled. Nicholas and Hannah raced into the living room and began tearing into the paper, calling to their father in excited tones. As Quentin joined his children, Bonnie-B caught Ven’s gaze, and tilted her head in a silent question.

Ven nodded, a sad smile crawling across his face.

Lunch was consumed quickly, Ven and the Richardsons ravenous from the morning’s exertion. Quentin commanded Hannah to take care of the trash; as she left for the kitchen, Nicholas went to the bathroom, leaving Ven alone in the living room with the two adults.

“Hey.” Quentin and Bonnie-B looked up at Ven’s gentle call. “Really appreciate what you did for me today.”

“Of course,” Bonnie-B replied with pleasure. “You know, your still welcome to come over for dinner this evening.”

“Any evening.” Quentin leaned forward, and gazed intently at Ven. “Just because you’re living in the city now, doesn’t mean you need to be a stranger.”

Ven sighed heavily, and then stood slowly. “I’ll be up to see you, I promise. But, tonight — ” he waved a hand towards the nearest stack of boxes — “I really need to unpack.” Nodding, Quentin stood quickly, and called for the children.

“Mister Ven — ” Ven turned towards Hannah — “I really like your apartment.” Nicholas echoed his sister’s judgement.

“You guys are sweet.” The young man lowered himself to his right knee, and embraced the Richardson children. After shaking Ven’s hand, Quentin then lead the children out of the apartment, leaving Ven alone with Bonnie-B.

 She laid a hand on Ven’s shoulder. “Promise me, that you won’t spend every evening here alone.”

For a moment, Ven considered telling her Aidan was planning to come over tomorrow. But instead, he smiled, and simply said, “I won’t.”

She hugged him warmly, then left to join her family. The apartment door closed, and for the first time that day, Ven was alone in his new home. Sighing, he walked into the living room, located the nearest box, and ripped the packing tape off its cardboard top. 

Helping Hands, Part 10

Quentin removed his glasses, and pinched his eyes closed. “Ven — please understand, we have just as much compassion for Aidan as you do.” The words angered Ven, but the young man decided to let Quentin continue. “But the Bible isn’t a menu, you can’t just pick and choose the passages you like and ignore the rest. We either accept God’s word, or reject it, there’s no middle ground. And the Bible couldn’t be clearer, the laws against sexual deviance — ”

“Do you eat pork?” Ven pressed his challenge. “Shellfish? Do we stone adulterers?”

Quentin shook his head, his eyes downcast. “This again. Acts 10, Cornelius — the laws of Moses were abolished when salvation was opened to the Gentiles.”
Ven lifted his arms wide. “So if I can enjoy a BLT, why can’t you let Aidan live in peace?”

“Ven, Ven.” Quentin sighed wearily. “The New Testament — ”

“Epistles, not the Gospels.”

Hands on hips, head swiveling back, Quentin blew air through his lips, fbbbbbbt. “Aidan will always have my love. I told him that, after… we finished praying.”

Ven listened to the rain pounding on the bay window. He felt their conversation had reached its end, further words would only recycle their tiresome argument. He began searching his mind for a reason to excuse himself — something he left in the van, an errand he suddenly remembered — when Quentin’s ringtone interrupted the awkward silence. Quentin answered the call immediately, like a prison guard anticipating a pardon from the governor; Ven retreated to the living room, and after moving a box from the seat of his cushioned chair, sat and watched the rain.

Helping Hands, Part 9

“Aidan.” Quentin’s voice was distant, his mind engaged in recalling the face for that name. “I haven’t… how is he?”

Ven drew in his breath. “He’s fine, really. And he really did want to help today. But then, I said you’d be here.”

A torrent of rain assaulted the bay window, the percussive impact drowning all sound in the apartment. Feeling Quentin approach, Ven stood up, and turned, to see Quentin’s palms raised towards him.

“We weren’t trying to hurt — ”

“Maybe not, but that’s what you did anyway.”

Quentin blinked, biting his lower lip. “Ven, when you love someone — truly love them — that means you sometimes have to say things, they don’t want to hear.”

“Did you call him a Sodomite?”

Quentin’s face reddened. “I… would not — ”

“But others did, yes? Aidan told me he was kneeling, begging you and the other Elders to just listen to him a moment. But you wouldn’t let him talk — ”

“We were praying, Ven! That’s what the Lord commands us to do, Ven, to seek his wisdom — ”

“What kind of wisdom were you lacking?” His arms raised over his head, Ven closed in on Quentin. “Aidan was confused and scared, it should have been obvious to anyone that he needed to know he wasn’t alone.” He stopped, bringing his arms down. “But that’s exactly what you did, you forced him to remain kneeling and then put your hands on him — ”

“Like we do every time we ask for God’s healing.” Quentin shook his head dismissively.

Ven glanced to his right, then back up. “He couldn’t move, Quentin. He was surrounded, with all these hands pressing down on him. He said it felt like you were pushing him away.”

Helping Hands, Part 8

Ven’s footfalls echoed in his new apartment as he re-entered. Quentin called from the bathroom, “Mind if I unpack the box in here? Looking for soap, and a towel.”

“Go for it. Should be in there.” Ven’s answer was swiftly followed by the sound of packing tape ripping from cardboard. The young man kept walking into the apartment’s living room, which returned fewer echoes now that the furniture, boxes, and moving crates had been delivered. He navigated through the towers of his possessions to a large bay window.

Large drops of rain began falling, and splattering against the window. The predicted front had arrived, and looked to be a typical spring storm, swift but violent. The large splattering drops suddenly gave way to a steady torrential drumbeat, and by the time Ven heard Quentin open the bathroom door, the downpour had become an enormous gray curtain, as loud as it was opaque.

“Bonnie and the children should have made it to the car before it started coming.” Ven nodded in response to Quentin, then lowered his eyes and placed his hands wide on the window sill.

“Putting your bed frame together’s a two-person job. We could probably get that done before they return.”

“Good idea.” Head bowed, hands remaining on the sill, Ven closed his eyes. Promise me, that you’ll talk to Quentin.

“So, why don’t we — ”

“Aidan volunteered to help me today.” After he spoke, Ven’s eyes opened.

Helping Hands, Part 7

Nicholas was waiting outside the door of Ven’s new apartment. He stood tall, his freckled face beaming with pride. “Momma and me, we get all the boxes put away!”

Mother and I.” Quentin’s didactic response wiped his son’s enthusiasm away.

Bonnie-B appeared in the doorway, her son stepping aside for her, just before Ven arrived. She laid a gentle hand on Nicholas’ shoulder, as she looked at Ven. “We were wondering, since we’re done so early with the move, whether we should help you get started unpacking all your possessions.”

Ven sighed, and realized he was standing literally in the middle of the Richardson family, Bonnie-B and Nicholas in front of him, Quentin and Hannah behind. And it occurred to his actively curious mind how he was also in the middle of a life transition, no longer living in his college-town apartment where he would still be paying rent, but not quite living in his new dwelling in the city.

The young man cleared his throat. “Thanks, but I can’t ask for anything more of you. You have your own home, your own lives — I’ll be fine, really.” He looked down at Nicholas’ disappointed face, and raised his eyebrows. “But I did say I’d buy lunch for everyone, right?”

The Richardson children erupted with delight, and soon Bonnie-B, equipped with a pen from Quentin’s vest pocket and the back of an envelope from a utility bill Ven recovered from his backpack, was writing down everyone’s sandwich order. Quentin excused himself to use the bathroom, and the children raced to the elevator, leaving Ven and Bonnie-B alone a moment outside the apartment door.

Ven began retrieving bills from his wallet. “This should more than enough, even with drinks. They’ve got bottled iced tea, I like — ”

“Honey ginger, if I recall.” Ven looked up at Bonnie-B, expecting a smile of recognition. The sadness he saw in her face came almost as a shock to him.

“Ven.” From his new bathroom, Ven heard the toilet flush. “Promise me, that you’ll talk to Quentin.”

Ven opened his mouth to ask what they should discuss, but stopped at the silent command of her gaze, telling him that he already knew.

“I will.” And on hearing Ven’s words, Bonnie-B smiled, then touched his cheek. For a moment, Ven thought she was about to kiss him, but then she lowered her hand, excused herself, and walked towards her children waiting at the elevator.