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Susan McIntyre and Roberta Branca

McIntyre_RE

Susan McIntyre
Created using Roberta Branca’s story (below) as inspiration

Sara and Tommy Boy
By Roberta Branca

Sara huddled way under the covers, in the middle of the bed, with a flashlight and her diary.

“… The beautiful Princess Sarina and the gorgeous Prince Thomas were lost in the woods. Sarina, who never cried, held Thomas’ hand because she knew he was a scaredy cat. Sarina was never scared. That was why the King and Queen were going to leave her the entire kingdom and Thomas was going to be her butler. But first, they had to find their way home so they wouldn’t be late for supper …”
Sara heard the front door slam, and the sound of her mother’s footsteps thudding clumsily on the stairs. Off went the flashlight. She scooted to the top of her bed, laid her head on her pillow and closed her eyes, clutching her diary tightly.
Sara listened, knowing her parents might come down the hall and check on her, peeking around her door silently and then shutting the door again just as silently. That’s not what happened next though.
“I know whattime itis,” her mother said, loud and fast.
“What kind of dress is that?” Her father said, loud but careful. Sara threw the covers over her head and scooted back to the middle of the bed, to resume her story. She wrote very fast, with her head close to the paper because she liked the sound of pencil scratches. The voices were louder though.

“Prince Thomas, as usual, was getting tired and Sarina, who was much stronger, had to carry him. Sarina knew where she was now. The castle was right around the next bend …”
Sara was only ten, but already she had her goals. She wanted to be a famous writer, the mother of six children, and the first woman to walk on Mars. Her hair was such a dark shade of brown that it looked almost black, and perfectly straight. Her mother called it a “page boy” style.

Tommy Boy – Prince Thomas in the story – was Sara’s imaginary friend. Tommy Boy challenged Sara; he got her to jump across brooks and puddles, to climb trees and scrape her knees. Sara could change Tommy Boy’s age any time she wanted. He was her younger brother when she wanted to be the boss of someone. He was her much older boyfriend when she wanted a handsome prince to run away with. He could be in her grade at school when teachers scolded her for not paying attention, and her classmates laughed at her for it.
“— like a slut,” her father growled. “Who was your drinking pal this time? Tom? Dick? Harry? Don’t tell me it was your friend Susan. I don’t believe you.”
“It was a big guy named Tom’s Harry Dick,” Sara’s mother said.

“But before they started on the path to the castle, Sarina and Thomas stopped to pluck candy canes off the bushes and trees. Sarina loved candy canes, but Thomas usually got sick if he had more than nine or ten in one day …”
“I don’t care where you go. But your daughter does and the neighbors do. Our friends do,” he said.

Sara’s mother laughed. “What friends? Nobody in this neighborhood talks to us. They’re all afraid of big, bad Jerry Carter with his ham hock hands –.” Something heavy thudded against Sara’s door and she ducked under her covers, hands over her ears. Usually there was a lot of yelling, and a lot of door slamming. Not this though. Never this.

Something jingled.
“Gimme those keys! You’re too drunk –”

Sara heard a door slam. Ladies’ shoes clicking fast in the driveway. A car motor roaring, and then loud squealing, like the time her dad swerved to miss a raccoon running across the road.
Sara waited for the door to slam again, to know that her father would go after her mother.  Instead she heard her father coming up the stairs and then her parents’ bedroom door slammed shut.
Sara resumed her position at the head of the bed, her cheek on her pillow and her diary clutched to her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut tight, and as she fell asleep she was sure Tommy Boy was patting her back.

* * *

“Are you awake, Sara?” A large hand rested on her head, stroking her hair gently. She opened her eyes. Her father, Jerry Carter, sat on the edge of her bed. It was a bright day, and Sara knew it was just two days after Valentine’s Day. She also knew it was very cold out because there was ice on her window.

“What time is it? Do I have to get up? I thought it was Saturday.”

“It’s seven o’clock. It is Saturday, but I have something to tell you.”

Sara waited, holding her breath. She was afraid to sit up, because she might want to look out the window, and her mother’s car might not be there. Her mother might not come back because of the thing her father threw against the wall.

“You mother died last night, Sara.”

Sara sat up. “In her car? I heard her get in the car.”

His breath hitched as he spoke. He nodded, then passed his hands over his eyes, then shook his head.

“She was too drunk to be driving, and she didn’t see a truck coming at her, and she hit it head on. She was on the wrong side of the road,” he said.

He said that the same way he might say to Sara, “The fork is on the wrong side of the plate,” or, “Your toys are on the floor when they should be in the toy box.”

Sara sat up, and rubbed a tiny hand over one eye. “I heard you fighting. Something hit the wall,” Sara said quietly.

Jerry gave a start. “I tried to stop her, tried to make her give me the keys.”

“That was after. There was a loud thud first.” Sara was stubborn, but Jerry was more so.

“Sara, I can’t remember everything exactly the way it happened, but maybe in time we’ll both get past feeling so sad and it won’t matter.” He squeezed his daughter’s hand.

“Tommy Boy heard it too.”

Jerry passed a hand over his eyes, shook his head. Then he changed the subject.

“You won’t be going to school this week, and I won’t be going to work. What should we do after that? . . . well, let’s see, you’re grandmother’s here, she’ll be okay in a pinch . . . but probably we’ll need a sitter, just for after school until I get home . . .”

Sara thought about the time she made up her mind to bring a stray cat into the house. She put it in the laundry room, with a bowl of milk, and then spent an afternoon wheedling her mother into letting the cat stay.
“I think it’s already a done deal,” her mother sighed. From then on, the Carters had a cat.
Her father kept on talking, pretending to “discuss plans” with her, but she could see it was a done deal. She studied her father’s face as he talked. She was looking for the same sadness in his face that she was feeling in her chest. And sometimes, as he talked, she thought she saw it. Other times, she didn’t think she saw it at all.
When she was alone again, Sara reached across her bed and dangled her hand over the edge. She wanted Tommy Boy to hold her hand but she clutched only the air.

——————————————————-

Susan McIntyre_INSP

Susan McIntyre
Inspiration piece provided to Roberta Branca

The Book-box
By Roberta Branca

Darts of arctic air puncture my skin through layers of underclothes, dress, coat, and wool blanket. Ari huddles against my bosom, his small arms clutched tightly around my waist.

Children in ours and other boats cry, “Where is papa? Where is papa?” At age two and six months, Ari rarely strings more than two words together. He cries pitifully, kitten-like.

Wrenching metallic bursts of noise cover the distance between lifeboat and ship; the mournful sound defies human language. Ari screams. Far ahead, the bow disappears beneath the surface. The stern stands on end. My body trembles, I clutch Ari, press his head into my shoulder so he cannot witness his father’s death.

The stern sinks so slowly. Through the fog I see a denser mist, like a human figure, rising from the roiling sea at the spot where the bow disappeared. I shake my head, causing ice-cold tears to slide around my cheeks.  I want to watch that spot, to watch over my husband, for as long as I can, until the sea is calmed again.

So I look. The column of mist is even heavier now, with a distinct outline. It is human but it is not my John. It is Sheila.

I cannot think of Sheila. I won’t. I believe John is dead because he went below to find her. How much more heroic my husband was, how habitual I was in putting her out of my mind in such a crisis. I still have not forgiven the girl for her original role in Ari’s life: wet nurse.

Ari had a sister once. They lay nestled together inside me, sharing everything. I’m not built for two of them, our doctor says. Hips too narrow, and a nasty cold in the last two weeks made for a difficult birth. I held our stillborn girl in my arms; at least they allowed me that. I was depleted afterwards, emotionally and physically. There was barely enough to sustain myself, let alone Ari. I struggled along for a week, Ari lost weight and cried continuously.

John had his one good suit pressed and made a trip to London, touring orphanages for three days until he found what he was looking for: an unmarried girl who’d suffered a still birth. As a Catholic, Sheila could not return to her family in Ireland in disgrace. She had cousins in America, though, who could take her in if she could somehow pay for the passage.

Before leaving the girls’ home where Sheila was confined, the nuns pressed a watch into John’s hands. She said Sheila’s father had given it to them as payment for his daughter’s care even though no payment was required; they thought Sheila too flighty and impetuous to keep hold of it. John’s devotion to his family and his handsome figure, tall and well-dressed, impressed them. They were sure he could be trusted.

The first time Sheila cam to take Ari from me to feed him, I did not so much as look at her. Sheila never missed a feeding. And while I was still bedridden she never failed to return Ari to me, so that we could look into each other’s eyes and I could coo at him. She retreated to her own room, right next door. I do not know how she occupied herself when she wasn’t tending to us. Reading or sewing, perhaps.

Ari stirs on my lap, still mewling as he rearranges himself in agitation. His weight is all wrong, pressing against my abdomen, a chubby but hard-boned knee digging into my side. Icy waves slosh over the boat, soaking my feet.

As I rearrange my son, my carryall bag falls with a heavy thud. I lean, set it right, and cannot help snapping it open. I must check. The book-box is still there.

Now I remember all the little moments that make up the strange collection of trinkets hidden in the book. John wasn’t sure if the purser’s office would give much care to second-class passengers, so he cut out the middle of an old book and lacquered the pages together to form the sides of the box. Enough pages are left uncut, and also lacquered, to form a stiff firm surface for fastening screws and nails.

In that box are certain articles vital to our plans. Sheila’s watch is fastened by wires to its own inner box. The watch box is fastened by two screws into our book-box.  Beneath that, a key stands up on its narrow end, fastened by wires and protected by wire mesh netting.

Now the boat’s stern is gone too. It was social custom and pure chance that put John, Ari, and I on the ship that was supposed to spirit away Sheila.

As Ari weaned onto solid food and I grew stronger, there was still the problem of Sheila’s passage. We had the money, we had saved it, but who would chaperone her? John was vexed that he had not thought that question through. The doctors had decreed that I must get out of the city each summer; an agent was searching for a country house for us.

Then the agent mentioned he knew of a house in Saratoga Springs, New York. He offered to write away to the owner and within the month the key to the cottage was mailed to us.

When that key first arrived, it was perfunctory smiles and nods of assent from me. After all, what good wife disdains well-intentioned plans, fashioned by her husband for her own welfare and comfort, and for that of her child?

It was John’s making of the treasure box that quickened my enthusiasm for his plan. I could not help but chuckle with delight, Ari’s comforting weight in my arms, watching my husband apply lacquer, fasten nails. When John finished securing the watch and the key, he stood with arms akimbo. His thick mustache twitched, a sign he was thinking but in good humor.

He walked over and took Ari from me, and brought him over to the worktable. The child leaned forward; from the doorway, I could see only one side of his chubby-cheeked face; it was alight with fascination.

“What do you think, son?” John whispered to him. “What should Papa do next, hmmm?”

Ari was now reaching with both hands, and John brought him even closer to the worktable, strewn with bits of wire, nails and brass tacks.. The boy reached a finger toward a thick piece of wire but before he could touch it, John picked it up. He placed it in the box, above the watch box.

“What else?” He whispered again. This time Ari’s pointing finger lighted on a scrap of wire netting. Again, John took it up before the chubby little finger could do more than graze it.

John held the netting over various portions of the box, turning it this way and that until lowering it onto the bottom most edge. “You’re right son, this is exactly what we need.” He handed Ari back to me, which made Ari cry. For several minutes, I walked up and down the length of the shop, bouncing him lightly.

At each pass, I paused to glance over John’s shoulder. He was using small wires to fasten the thick wire at the top, and brass tacks to fasten the netting over the key at the bottom. The top of the netting was curled upward, would not lie flat on its own.

“It’s going to snag something,” I said.

John picked up a large nail, laid it on the edge of the watch box, and formed the netting edge against it. Next he took a coil of thin wire, cut strands, and looped the strands through the netting and the nail. He looped the end of the wire onto the brass tack.

“You see,” he said. “I’ve just secured our future.” He stood back, beaming and pointing to the key.

Tears again. I lift my eyes back to the horizon. The sunken spot in the ocean still roils, and the misty figure is there. Sheila points toward us, then draws her arms to her bosom; I think she is going to cross them. No. She holds them against herself, cradling empty air.

I clutch Ari tightly again, and he cries again. Can the mist-figure move? Is she here for Ari? The mist-figure shakes her. In one fluid motion she points to her own abdomen, and cradles the air again. I catch my breath. It was not Ari she wanted, not ever. It was her own baby.

Dawn is breaking. People are pointing to the other horizon, shouting. In a distance a ship appears.

“We’re saved!” People around me hug each other.

Ari squirms and opens his eyes sleepily, hugs me tighter.

“Mama?” He leans back and stares into my eyes, his own eyes wide with questions and bewilderment at the noise around us.

——————————————————-

Note: All of the art and writing on this site belongs to the person who created it. Copying or republishing anything you see here without express and written permission from the author or artist is strictly prohibited.

4 comments

  1. I’m extremely impressed with both the artwork and the writing on this page. I adore the ghost story, Roberta. No one writes those anymore. Keep creating, both of you. You’re bright sparks in the universe.


    • Right back atcha, Jewel!


  2. I enjoyed how writer and artist provided each other with inspired moments using colors, textures and subtle notions. I was sympathetic in the first piece, not so much at her mother’s crash, but at how she will manage with her father. Fantasy and make believe are just as much adult as they are a child’s domain. How Sara survives in her fantasy world is how I ask, do children survive in this troubled world? The second piece is as much hauntingly beautiful, as the ocean takes its toll. I just as much envision a spectre looming over those roiling waters reaching for a lost child, as survivors await rescue. I am reminded by my grandmother’s voyage aboard the Carpathia in 1912. She believed in ghosts and had a healthy respect for them too…


    • Thank you, Bill, for your continuous support for my work.



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