Historical Fantasy/Middle Grade
The Dry /revision one
Fact: Wasps live in colonies that form self-contained communities ruled by one queen or foundress.
The early light slipped between smoky mountains, swept across the town's bell tower, and burst bright the edges of everything. Another dry dawn and the town of Jeffersonville, Virginia was slow getting to its feet. At the center of town a tall house sagged in shadow. The sunlight stretched to reach the topmost attic window of this house and peek inside.
The sun gilded a much-repaired counterpane before resting for a moment on a quiet cheek. Dark eyelashes fluttered under this vivid scrutiny.
Awake, twelve-year-old Elliot Sweeney spread his arms to embrace the warmth before tossing his covers aside. He picked up the photograph he had unearthed last night, buried beneath rodent-soaked newsprint in an old cupboard crammed between other discards that shared the attic with him. Who was the boy next to his Uncle Nat? And why was his photograph hidden in the attic?
He pushed the photo into a pocket of his jacket. He had a lot of pockets. Into these he put coins, his string, his favorite marble, a stash of bread, and his father's letter - his father's last letter. Months ago, he had taken the crumpled missive from the trash bin where Uncle Nat had tossed it. With care he folded the feather-soft paper and put it in his jacket's inside pocket, next to his heart.
The skitter-scratch of claws near his feet made his skin prickle. He studied the path through the mounded furniture. His escape. The light had banished the shadows that lurked like dragons in the corners. He was glad for the light. He didn't much care for dark.
There was a lot of dark in this house, several long halls, lots of doorways, and countless deep corners. And the noise - creaks and groans his father told him were natural to an old house - had grown to skittering, clodhopping, and clatter that could not be natural. For though his uncle lived somewhere in the house, he was alone, alone as single Mayfly. Because when his father left for the newspaper assignment, his uncle promptly forgot he was still there and had all the rooms locked. But he discovered the key to the attic door. So he moved up there, and found rag rugs and moth-riddled blankets for a bed. It was all he needed. No, not all. He needed his father.
Heedful to lock the attic door behind so nothing looked changed and he came back and had no where to sleep, he tip-toed down the stairs. As he approached his uncle's study door he heard the 'clink' 'clink' 'clink' and the low muttering of Uncle Nat counting his money. He had reached the steps to the ground floor when behind him the study door opened.
He turned to face his uncle.
As if Elliot were a ghost, the old man's face went deathly pale. Then he blinked and cleared his throat. "Why are you still here?"
"My father hasn't returned."
"Is that my fault?"
"No, sir, but -"
"Nevermind! I'm busy," his uncle said, and closed the door.
It was a dismissal. Elliot stared at the closed door. Why did Uncle Nat make a point of avoiding him, forgetting him, not speaking to him? He didn't understand it. He would never understand. He wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers and ran the rest of the way down the stairs.
In the kitchen he filled his father's army-issue canteen with water, and a glass besides. He hung the canteen with the strap across his chest. He had had to loop it twice and tie it because the original strap was too long.
The back door opened. The cook arrived, wiping sweat from her red face. She motioned to him with a finger to her mouth. He nodded and watched her pull something from her pocket. She grabbed his empty hand, put a wad of paper money in his palm and curled his fingers around it. She bent close and whispered, "For new shoes."
How had she known he needed new shoes? He pulled her close and whispered in her ear, "Thank you. I'll pay you back."
Her eyes were wet, as she shooed him away with her apron.
The front door closed behind him with a sound like a sigh. He clambered down the plank steps to the sapling he worked to keep alive in the deathly dry. Something squirmed at his feet. It was a fishing worm twisting in the dust. He picked it up and laid it under a leaf at the base of his little tree and dumped the water from his glass over it.
"You saved that worm," the man's voice startled Elliot.
He looked up at the gawky man smiling down at him from the other side of the yard's iron fence. Everyone in town thought Morgan Johns was simple. They called him a changeling, but Elliot liked him so he said, "No use in letting something like that die."
"This dry 's just about killin' ever-thing."
"I got somethin'." The man held out a shiny watch case. "Here."
"I can't take that off you."
"It's mine so I can give it to you."
Elliot shook his head. "But why?"
"I see you go down to the station ever day waitin' for yer paw. You gonna need this watch. Open it."
Elliot took the watch. He popped the case open. All the dials and levers clicked and turned inside the crystal of the watch face. It ticked loudly. But the watch ran backward. It was just about the strangest but most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He looked up at Morgan John's smooth face, the way his eyes blinked slow over large eyes. The glint of silver in his mouth.
The man nodded. "Can you read the time on it?"
"It says eight o'clock."
"See? I can too. We about the only two people in the world, I reckon, can tell it's time. So you take it."
"Maybe. Okay. Just today."
"You goin' to the station?"
"The train's due at nine. Might be early. Sometimes is."
"Okay. See you again, Elliot Sweeney."
Morgan Johns left with his long awkward strides towards the other side of the dirt road. Mule-drawn wagons swayed past. Some loads were the size of small houses. Dust billowed, floating like a red haze. When he looked again, Morgan Johns was gone.
He took off for the station, his mouth dry already. He kicked at small pebbles. He couldn't give in to thirst. The water in the canteen had to last all day. A messenger in an old uniform hurried past. He hoped what news he carried wasn't bad. He would never forget the telegram. Sam Sweeney disappeared, it read. His stomach hurt thinking about it still. When his father disappeared, life went all hard on the outside and squishy-yucky on the inside- like a durned bug. This marked the ninety-first day since he began his vigil. The ninety-second since his father left. But something strange took a-hold of him this morning. He had a feeling deep inside where it mattered most that today something different would happen.
The station looked empty. That meant he had time before the train's arrival to read the newspaper's headlines. He crossed the platform to the news stand. He spotted a drawing of his father's face on the front page. His heart did a double-time thump. What happened? He read the caption:
SEARCH ABANDONED ~ For missing ~ Newspaper man ~Well-known for his campaign ~Against CHILD LABOR
The approaching train whistled and whooshed into the station bringing with it every kind of dust and dry from fourteen counties around, seemed like. Elliot stared at the line of cars, listened to the huffing train engine, sucked in the throat-drying diesel smoke. No. This wasn't right. No! Not even if every human on the face of this old earth gave up on his father, he would not! He would find his father. With a lump the size of a fist in his throat, he bought a ticket and boarded the train.