Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Career · #1930989
After reading that letter I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my working life.
2nd Place Winner, What a Character, April 2013
Storms Make Oaks Root
The winters in the mountains of East Tennessee are five, bone-chilling months long, and Liz froze every day of each of those months. But today she burned with excitement.
"Mom?" Mark Jr.'s sleepy voice called to his mother.
Liz poked her head into the dark bedroom her children shared, and whispered. "Mornin,' sweetheart."
"What time is it?"
Liz tiptoed into the room. "Shhh, you'll wake your sister." She sat on the edge of Mark's bed and gently stroked her son's blond hair. "It's 4 a.m. and I'm late for work. You be sure that you and Natalie eat breakfast before going to school, okay?"
"Okay, mom." Mark, Jr. rolled over and closed his eyes.
Liz pulled the blanket up around Mark's chin and kissed him lightly on his forehead. "You're the oldest, so you have to look out for your sister."
"I know," he said.
Liz stood, and whispered, "And remember, we're all meeting for lunch today. I have something to discuss with you and Natalie." She stepped over to her daughter's bed and pulled the blanket up around Natalie's neck and kissed her cheek, and then left the room.
Liz stepped out into the cold and pulled her collar up as she walked to her car. The vinyl seat covers crinkled under her as she sat on the frigid seat and fumbled the key into the ignition and started the engine. She hugged her hands under her arm pits for warmth as she let the car run for only a minute before driving away; one gloved-hand on the steering wheel, the other hand wedged under her thigh for warmth.
Seven days a week, every week of the year, Liz drove to the Mason City Press building in the pre-dawn darkness to deliver newspapers. It was how she earned a living, how she supported her children. It was her job.
A job she would not miss.
The yellow, overhead lights reflected from her smudged windshield as Liz drove into the covered loading area. She switched off the ignition and got out of the car and glared at the old vehicle as the engine shook and sputtered before finally stopping with a loud backfire that startled her. She turned from the car and saw Lou, the route manager, standing outside his office, a thin smile on his lips.
"Sorry I'm late, Lou."
"Morning Liz...everything all right?"
"Everything's fine." Liz scanned the deserted loading dock. "Where's my papers?"
"Over there," Lou pointed to the raised concrete dock. "Two stacks." Lou liked Liz. Because she was his best worker, and because he wanted to help, he had recommended her for a management position, a job with better hours and higher pay. But she had turned down the offer, choosing instead to stay in college. Lou knew that life was not easy for a widow with two small children, a full-time college load, and a job that required odd working hours. Liz never complained, and when Lou asked her why she pushed herself so hard, she always gave the same two-word answer; "The kids."
"Come on," Lou said, "I'll give you a hand."
Lou carried his considerable weight like a man half his size. He never wore a hat or gloves, only a thin jacket, and he never complained about the cold. It made Liz shiver just looking at him. He told everyone his meanness kept him warm, but Liz knew better. Lou was a sweetheart, and he worried about everyone. She would miss him. Lou climbed the steps to the raised loading area, and asked, "Are the kids okay?"
"The kids are fine, I just overslept."
"I understand," Lou said. "I know you have a busy schedule." Lou picked up a heavy stack of newspapers.
"It's been tough the last couple of years," Liz said. She grabbed the other stack of papers and followed Lou to her car.
"I know it, hon." Lou leaned against Liz's car, and said, "The death benefits the government gives you probably ain't much." He frowned. "I think more should be done for a man's family when he dies fighting for his country. And this job wasn't easy for you, what with the kids and college.
"Yes, but when I received the test results last week—when I actually held the certification, my certification, I knew all the work had been worth the effort."
"I'm sure it was, hon. But I always wondered where you got your energy, your drive. I never knew what kept you going, but I have a lot of respect for you. You never gave up." He slammed the trunk lid and turned to her. "You were unstoppable, Liz—it had to be important to you."
"It was...it is. It's very important." Liz never told anyone her reasons for wanting to be a nurse. They were private thoughts, and she kept them to herself.
Liz got into her car and drove to the Quick Mart and bought a cup of coffee. Her fingers were stiff and numb by the time she finished folding and bagging two-hundred-forty-two newspapers. Now all she had to do was deliver them all; and try to collect from a couple of late payers.
"Good morning Liz, we're a little late today, aren't we?"
A less-than-happy George Mize made sure Liz knew his schedule had been upset by the late delivery. She wanted to avoid a long discussion with him, so she asked him about his past due bill. As expected, George was suddenly in a hurry to return to his home.
"Sure is cold this morning," he said and started up his driveway. "I don't want to catch a cold, so I better get inside. Next week...I'll pay for both months next week. That okay, Liz?"
Liz called to him through the open car window. "Sure George, I don't mind waiting." She rolled up the window and mumbled, "We wouldn't want you to catch cold, would we?"
Liz had learned patience on this job; late payers, petty complaints about newspapers not lying just right at the front door, snow, rain, flat tires. But she knew those lessons would come in handy on the job she was beginning tomorrow. She sighed and rubbed her gloved hand against the windshield and cleared a small circle in the frost so she could see.
The noisy engine sputtered, overheated, and backfired, but her car kept chugging along as she hurried over the slick mountain roads. "First thing I'm going to do is buy a decent car," she mumbled into the frigid air.
It was mid-morning by the time Liz returned to the loading area. She saw Lou standing at his office door waving her over.
"I'll be right there," she said. She handed in her paperwork and walked to Lou's office.
"Got time for a cup?" Lou asked.
Liz looked at the clock on the wall behind Lou, 11:15. "Sure, I've got a little time." The wooden chair creaked as she sat down and rubbed her hands together trying to bring back some feeling.
Lou handed her a cup of steaming coffee and sighed as he sat back in his chair. "Nothing like fresh coffee on a cold day." He took a long sip from his stained mug.
"It sure smells good." Liz held the cup in both hands and let its warmth seep into her cold fingers.
"How were the roads this morning?" he asked.
"Not too bad, they're mostly clear."
"How's old man Mize?" Lou smiled his familiar, gap-toothed grin.
"He let me know I was behind schedule...says he'll pay next week." She smiled. "I guess he doesn't know."
"Wouldn't matter if he did know." Lou said. He chuckled as Liz took a sip of coffee and steam clouded her glasses. He leaned over the desk and handed her a Kleenex.
While she cleared her lenses, Liz noticed a deep V forming between Lou's narrowed eyes, and said, "Whoever takes my route will have the same problem collecting from Mr. Mize."
"It's not that...it's just..." Lou looked into his coffee cup, and said, "Never mind, it's none of my business."
"What's up Lou? What's that look about?"
"I just can't figure you out, hon, that's all. I'm happy for you, I am. But I never understood why you pushed so hard for this; there were easier options open to you." His eyes came level with hers.
"It's a long story." Liz said.
"I understand—it's personal."
"Yes, it is, but you've been like family to me, Lou. I don't mind talking about it."
She took a sip of coffee and sighed, then gazed down into her coffee cup, and frowned. "You know Mark was seriously injured in the war."
"Yeah, I remember the day you found out; it was awful."
"They sent him to a hospital in Texas. I visited him, but I couldn't stay out there too long. I went to see him whenever I could..."
"I know that, hon." Lou interrupted.
"...I had to be here, you know, the kids and all."
"I know—everyone knows."
"And when Mark died two months later I didn't really know what happened. The army would only say that Mark was wounded in battle. About a month after he died I received a letter from the nurse who tended to him while he was in the hospital out there in Texas. The letter was so full of emotion."
"What'd the letter say?"
"Her name was Sally Carlton, a Lieutenant, I think. Anyway, she wrote and told me that her most important job was keeping Mark pain free and comfortable; he had a lot of shrapnel wounds.
"She said she read to him and that brought him comfort." She sighed. "I remember how much Mark loved to read, but his hands were covered in bandages, and he couldn't hold a book. She said Mark talked about me and the kids all the time, and that he missed us. She wrote letters for him, and she wiped his tears when she read the letters the kids wrote to him." Liz forced back her own tears.
"She said she was so sad when Mark died, and she decided to write—to help me to understand."
Liz hooked errant strands of brown curls over her ear and sighed. "I was so relieved to learn that Mark had someone so caring and compassionate near him during his final days."
"It was a blessing, hon."
"In more ways than one." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "It was that letter, Lou. It ignited something inside of me." A smile curled her lips. "That nurse had done so much for Mark, and then for me. After reading that letter I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my working life. It's just that simple."
"Doesn't sound simple to me, hon." Lou smiled at Liz. "It won't be the same around here without you."
"Thank you." Her face colored with embarrassment.
They sat in silence, sipping coffee in the warm office.
The second hand on the wall clock swung past the twelve, and the minute hand dropped with a click.
Liz glanced up and then put her cup on Lou's desk. "I better go...lunch with the kids. I have to give them the good news."
Lou stood and came around the desk. "I'm proud of you," he said and gave her a long hug. "You be sure to visit us some time." He smiled.
"I will. You've been good to me, Lou. Thank you."
"Good luck, hon. I'll miss you."
Liz's voice cracked as she spoke. "I'll miss you, too."
The January wind blew discarded trash against the chain-link fence surrounding the loading area as Liz walked to her old car. Warmed by the excitement of the new life she was beginning, Liz smiled and waved to Lou as she drove away.
Word Count: 1975