Past and Present
I hope You guys like this story, it means a lot to me. Any reviews are encouraged and welcome! It has a bit of a slow start but it picks up I promise! :)
The village is buzzing with noise as I make my way toward the town square. The square is a large outdoor trading center that lies in the center of the village. People come from dawn till dusk to buy, sell, and trade various goods and services. I keep my gaze fixed on my boots as I trudge through the icy muck, doing my best to ignore all the people and their anxious chattering.
The closer I get to the square, the harder it is to ignore them as they bustle around, bumping into one another as they shove their way through the crowd. I don’t blame them for wanting to get their supplies before they run out, but I hate being herded around like cattle. At least in the mines, everyone is too busy working to talk to each other.
I pull the hood of my coat tighter around my face as a sudden gust of cold air hits me. Winter has always been brutal and unforgiving in Alentra, and nobody was foolish enough to think that this year would be any milder than the last. The first snowstorm of the season hadn't happened yet, but the icy wind and ominous clouds were warning enough to bring everyone an their mothers to the square to stock up on supplies.
I make it to the heart of the square and thank the gods when I catch the savory and delicious scent of Lenora’s famous beef stew wafting toward me. I sniff the air as I make my way past the various vendors and tables of merchandise, searching for Lenora's stand. Tall oil lamps ignite, illuminating the darkening area. I look towards the sun that is slowly sinking in the distance and quicken my pace, hoping to make it home before the temperature drops any more.
I stop once, quickly buying a large bread roll before continuing down the narrow walkway, following the enticing smell floating in the air. I finally spot Lenora’s station amongst the crowd and quickly make my way to the back of the line of people waiting. As I wait in line my mind begins to wander. Memories of shopping here with my mother and father fill my mind, followed by the sadness that always comes when I think of the past. Things were so different now.
“Hello there,” Lenora’s warm raspy voice brings me out of my memory. I had been so lost in thought, I hadn’t realized I’d made it to the front of the line.
“Hello,” I pull my hood back slightly and straighten up to meet her eyes.
Lenora was a small woman, just over five feet tall, with rough tanned skin and grey hair that she wore in a loose bun at the base of her neck. She had deep brown eyes, very much like the rest of the population in Alentra, though I always thought hers had a certain twinkle and warmth to them that others didn’t.
“Where’s your coat, girl?” she says accusingly, pointing a knobby, calloused finger at me. “Mark my words, this is going to be our coldest winter yet. I don’t expect you’ll last awfully long in that rag you’re wearing.” She jerks her chin pointedly at my so called “rag” of a coat. I look down at the faded black fabric and brush off some of the soot on my sleeve indignantly.
I rub the end of my sleeve through my thumb and forefinger and sigh, knowing she’s right. I know she’s just chiding me, but it feels nice to have someone care even a little bit. The familiar pang in my chest shouldn’t surprise me anymore but it always manages steal my breath. She’s gone.
“I’ll be okay,” I reply coolly, shrugging my shoulders and looking unconcerned. Lenora is not convinced. She lets out a sharp breath through her nose and shakes her head reprovingly at me.
“That wouldn’t be beef stew would it?” I say, anxious for a change in the subject. I crane my neck and look over her shoulder to where a large metal pot is sitting, sending delicious smelling tendrils of steam billowing up into the crisp winter air.
“The one and only,” she replies confidently, placing a hand on her hip. “Care for a serving?” I smile at her and sigh, relieved that she seems content to move on from the topic of clothing I can’t afford.
“Three please,” I nod eagerly.
“Ahh, right,” she murmurs as she begins ladling the stew into a large canister, “How is your father and little Jameson.”
“They’re doing fine,” I sigh and take the small leather pouch of coins out of my pack. “Though Jaime can’t seem to stay out of trouble lately,” I shake my head and put some coins on the wooden table in front of Lenora.
“Yes, he always has been a mischievous one,” she chuckles warmly and places the canister of stew on the bar. I pick it up happily and am delighted when I feel the warmth from the can seeping into my frozen fingers.
Jameson was my seven-year-old little brother who no doubt was waiting patiently on the front steps of our house for me despite the cold and the coming storm. I’d berated him time and time again for staying outside in the cold for fear he’d get sick; though I could hardly blame him for not wanting to be confined in a small house with our father.
Also, I had to admit that seeing him waiting on the porch, smiling welcomingly at me as I arrive home has become the best and most anticipated part of my day. I can’t keep the smile from tugging at my lips as I picture his twinkling brown eyes and freckled cheeks.
I do end up going over to Holly’s station, but not for me. My coat is worn, but I know I can squeeze one more winter out of it. Jaime however, had grown at least two inches taller since last winter and would need something new to keep him warm on his way to and from school.
I make it to Holly’s station and wait patiently in line until I’m in front of her table of assorted coats, hats, and scarves. She beams at me excitedly and flashes me a dazzling, toothy smile. Holly had always been a cheery girl with a tinkling laugh and an affinity for the color pink. Suffice it to say, we’d never been close.
“Hi there,” Holly says brightly, “Can I help you find something?” I nod and do my best to return her smile, though mine reads more like a lip-twitch than a grin.
“I’m looking for a coat for a seven-year-old boy.”
“Oh perfect!” she gushes, “This table right here should have what you’re looking for.” She gestures to the table on her left. Eventually, a piece catches my eye; an all-black fur-lined coat with long, cuffed sleeves, a thick mid-section, and a large hood. Once it passes my inspection, I fold it over my arm and turn back to the cheery girl behind the table.
“How much for this one?” I ask, holding the coat out for her to see.
“Oh, I love that one,” she says eagerly, “It’s six silvers.” Six silvers is more than I make in an entire day at the coal mines, but winter was fast approaching and keeping Jameson happy and healthy had been my top priority since I was fourteen. I’d loved him from the moment he was born and was already completely enamored with him by the time our mom got sick. I was fourteen and Jameson had just turned two when she passed; he had no memory of her at all.
My mother, Vera, had been a kind, soft-spoken women with eyes like molten chocolate and a laugh that made even the darkest souls smile. She’d had a knack for bringing out the good in people, especially my father, it seemed, who hadn’t been the same since she’d died. It was like she had taken all his goodness with her when she died, leaving him with nothing but rage and despair.
It had taken my father nearly two years after my mother’s passing to even bother looking at Jameson or I. Needing a target for his pain and guilt, he had blames us for my mother's illness. I realized quickly that Jameson and I were on our own, and that it was now my responsibility to care for Jaime myself.
“Here,” I say politely placing my coins into her nimble, outstretched fingers, “Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” She chirps, stuffing the coins in the tan, woven pouch she has tied around her waist. “Stay warm out there!” I nod my head and make my way out of the square and back down the path that would lead me home to a cold little boy who needed a hot meal, and a new coat.
Jameson is, as predicted, waiting outside for me when I arrive home. He is sitting on the edge of the little porch in front of our house, tapping his boots in the dirt, and tying knots in an old piece of rope.
“Hey there,” I call as I near the porch. He jerks his head up suddenly and a giant smile spreading across his face.
“Ember!” He shouts excitedly. He scampers off the porch and runs to me, wrapping his arms around my waist and locking me in a vise-like hug. I wrap my free arm around him and squeeze him back. He scrunches his nose and starts sniffing the air dramatically before giving me a toothy grin. The gap where he is missing one of his teeth only adds to his adorability.
“What smells so yummy, Em?” He asks, smirking. As if he doesn’t know.
“It’s your favorite,” I take my arm from around him and ruffle his shaggy, brown hair, “Though it’s not like you don’t already know.”
“You’re right,” he agrees happily, “That’s stew.” He takes his arms from around me and grabs my free hand before turning back towards our house and dragging me to the porch.
“I also got you a present.” I bend down and unlace my boots, kicking them off to the side of the porch before opening the door.
“Really?” he asks excitedly, bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet.
“Yes, get inside and I’ll show you.”
I sigh when I feel the warmth from the small fire crackling in the fireplace on the other side of the room. Our home is small and simple, like many others in the village. It has a kitchen, a bathroom, and two small bedrooms. One bedroom is shared by Jameson and me, while the other belongs to our father.
Our kitchen is a plain, grey room with a fireplace, a sink, and a square, oak table. I unbutton my raggedy coat and fold it gingerly over the back of one of the rickety wooden chairs. I smirk at Jaime as I set the canister of stew on the table and slide my pack off my shoulder, stifling a groan in the process. Jameson watches me anxiously as I pull the bread roll and coat from my pack. His big brown eyes dart from the coat folded in my hands to the canister and bread on the table, as if he can’t decide which is of higher interest to him.
Grinning, I begin unfolding the coat, and hold it out for him to see. He stays perfectly still for a moment, just admiring the fabric in my hands, apparently unsure of what to do.
“Well, what do you think of it?” I ask hopefully.
“That’s for me?” He says disbelievingly, pointing a finger at the coat to specify. I nod and he reaches out and strokes a hand down the front of the soft black fabric appreciatively. I kneel in front of him and wrap the coat around his shoulders, helping him get his arms through the sleeves.
I finish getting the coat on him and button up the front. I lean back on my heels and look at him for a second before standing up and twirling my pointer finger in front of him. He heaves a dramatic sigh before putting his arms out and spinning in a slow circle in front of me. I nod my head in approval, smirking some more as he rolls his eyes.
The coat is a little long, reaching just above his knees, and I’ll have to roll the sleeves up, so his hands are free, but I know he’ll grow into it in no time. Jameson had always been small for his age, but he seemed to be going through a growth spurt.
“Well,” I say, “It looks good. How does it feel.”
“Hmm,” he strokes his chin with his fingers in mock concentration before replying with a shrug, “Warm.” He grins so broadly, the freckles on his nose scrunch together and dimples appear on his cheeks.
“Good,” I sigh, feeling more tension than I realized I was carrying ease out of my shoulders. “Take it and mine to our room while I get the stew ready." He flashes me another toothy smile before snatching my coat off the chair and racing, past my father’s room, to the little bedroom we share at the end of the hall.
I wait until Jameson is seated and scarfing down his serving before picking up a bowl and heading towards my father’s room. I stand outside his door and take a deep breath before knocking quietly. I school my features into a mask of calm indifference that I have perfected over the years and wait for his grumble of approval before reproachfully opening his door and going inside.
Years of practice keep my nose from scrunching as the smells of rum, stale tobacco, and sweat overwhelm my senses.
“This is for you,” I mumble, setting the bowl of stew gingerly on the small, wooden dresser in his room and turning towards him. He is sitting in a chair facing the window. He eyes me through the reflection in the glass and stares at me for a moment, his black eyes like daggers. I feel something twist anxiously in my stomach, but I meet his piercing gaze determinedly with a steely one of my own.
Solomon is a gruff looking man. He is in his mid-fifties and is tall and stalky, with rough, tanned skin and eyes as black as coal. He is sitting in the same chair and looking out the same window that he has every day for the last six years. Slowly, he turns his chair toward me and looks at me blankly.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were a boy,” he says dismissively, scrunching his nose slightly and raking his eyes down my tattered clothing before bringing them back up to my soot covered face.
“It’s stew,” I say simply before turning on my heel to leave, feeling the need to get as far away from him as possible.
“Well, bring it here,” he says gruffly. I slide my hand off the door handle, feeling another twist in my gut. I turn around and snatch the stew off his dresser swiftly and turn back to him. I take a deep breath to soothe the anger that feels like it’s trying to claw its way out from inside of me. I picture a large blank canvas and a bucket of white paint pouring down it from all sides, covering it entirely. Once the roaring in my ears returns to a steady hum, I go to him and hand him the bowl.
“Anything else,” I say, allowing some venom to seep through my tone, and refusing to back away from his hate filled gaze.
“Careful,” he says quietly in a voice of such cold hostility, it makes ice creep through my veins and goosebumps raise on my arms. “You know as well as I do how quickly glassy ponds can become raging seas.”
His threat was clear. We both wear a mask of false calm, but neither one of us is fooling the other. I had seen his rage break the surface more times than I could count and taken countless beatings without so much as a word. I knew that once I fought back, he would move to the next best target, and I would do everything in my power to spare my brother from his wrath.
I'm almost out of the room when he speaks again in the same icy, detached voice.
“You may keep him alive, but you’ll never be her.”