The Rabbit Freezes

This seventy-five word story was posted September 24, 2018 by Richard at Paragraph Planet.

The rabbit freezes. I raise my rifle and sight. Our eyes lock. It stares back, seeming to dare me to blow it away. You asked for it. I start to squeeze the trigger. Next to me my son says, “Go for it Dad, kill the bastard.” Just then I catch a lively twinkle of light in the rabbit’s eye and it softly blinks. I lower the gun to my side and whisper, “Let’s go inside.”

 

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What Grandma Said

The last time I saw my Grandmother Sara I’d wheeled her down to the community room of Meridian Way, the retirement home where she’d been living for the last year and a half.

“Is this okay?” I asked, setting the brake, “Are we close enough to the window?”

Grandma smiled, sat forward looking out over the skyline of Minneapolis and said, “It’s fine, Ethan, just perfect.”

“Would you like something to drink?” I indicated the refreshment area on the far wall, “Some tea, maybe?”

“A glass of water would be nice, sweetheart. Just a small one.”

It may sound like a simple thing, but I liked that Grandma always told the truth. It was a way of life for her. If you asked her about anything: are you hungry, tired or thirsty, for example, or her opinion on politics or religion, she’d always be honest with you. In my experience, most people weren’t as forthcoming. Not Grandma Sara, she always told the truth. It was refreshing.

“I’ll be right back. Don’t do go anywhere.”

She laughed at my lame joke, “Don’t worry, I’m perfectly happy right here.”

My earliest memory of her was when I was four years old. Mom dropped me off a lot back then when she went out on one of her ever increasingly frequent dates. I loved being with Grandma. We were snuggled on the couch, and I had my sleepy head resting in her lap, wrapped up in a shawl she’d knit. We were watching television, one of the courtroom dramas she loved so much. I remember the guy on the witness stand being approached by a solemn looking man holding a bible and being asked to ‘Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’

I roused myself and sat up, “What’s that mean, Grandma?”

“It means to never lie, Ethan. Always tell the truth.”

“Always?”

“Yes, always.”

It was my first life lesson from Grandma, and one that always has stayed with me.

She was a seamstress and worked for Lea’s Creations, a dress shop just off Nicolett Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Grandpa Ernie had been killed in World War II on D-Day and she lived in the bungalow they’d purchased in northeast Minneapolis just before he’d enlisted. She didn’t drive and took the bus back and forth to work. After mom left for good, Grandma took over the task of raising me and it was probably a good thing, too.

Once I was caught stealing a pack of gum with my friends Eddie and JK. They took off running and got away. I wasn’t so lucky. The store manager, a huge, hairy man with bushy eyebrows, caught me by the collar of my tee-shirt and made me sit in the back room while he called Grandma.

“You’ve got yourself a career criminal in the making here, Mrs. Stevenson. Make no doubt about it.”

I was seven years old and terrified. Grandma left work and took the bus to the store. We walked home without saying a word, me becoming more and more frightened with each step.

We walked in through the back door sat at the kitchen table. She looked me in the eye, her voice full of sadness, “Ethan, why did you do such a terrible thing? You just about broke my heart, stealing somebody else’s gum for pity sakes. Haven’t I raised you to be better than that?”

I felt horrible. It was plain that I’d disappointed her and let her down. “It wasn’t just me, Grandma. Eddie and JK were there, too, but when Mr. Jensen asked who else was there I told him it was just me.”

“So you lied?”

“No. Well, yes,” I said, tears suddenly flowing. I’d not only nearly broken her heart but also lied, a big “No no” in Grandma’s book.

“So you didn’t tell on them?”

“No.”

Grandma sat back and thought for a minute before saying, “Well, then, good. That’s a good thing.”

“What do you mean? I thought I wasn’t supposed to lie.”

She surprised me by suddenly reaching over and hugging me. “No, you shouldn’t lie, but you need to do right by your friends, too. Sometimes it’s okay to lie a little like you did. It’s called a white lie.”

I didn’t realize that life could be so complicated, but Grandma dedicated herself to helping me navigate my way through it.

That last day together her heart was worn out, weakened by a series of mini-strokes, but her mind was sill sharp. We’d stayed close our entire lives. I helped her choose Meridian Way, helped her move in, and visited at least every other day. She was the only family I had next to my wife and three kids.

One of things she told me that last day was how much she loved raising me.

“You were like a son to me, Ethan. The son I never had.”

What could I say? I gave her a heartfelt hug and she hugged me back, both of us making the most of our time together. I’m glad that we did. She passed away during that night due to a massive stroke. I was told she didn’t feel a thing.

And that thing about lying? Well, just before I left her that last day she asked if I ever regretted not having my birth mom around in my life.

“Were you okay with this old lady being your mother?” she asked.

I looked at her, this self-sacrificing woman who was the most wonderful person I’d ever known, and said, “Well, Grandma, I have to be honest here,” and I paused for effect, a long, pregnant moment, before grinning and saying, “You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“You wouldn’t lie,” she asked, joking.

“Never,” I said.

I remember that she smiled, then, and I did too. I couldn’t have asked for more from her. And that’s the truth.

 

 

Yellowjackets

It was Field Day, the last day of school for the Long Lake 5th graders. I was looking forward to tomorrow: no kids, no schedules, no rules to enforce. No nothing. I was also looking forward to a summer of alone time – my idea of heaven.

I was standing on the sidelines, monitoring a soccer game between my class and the other fifth grade class, Mrs. Elbert’s, and talking to Edith Silverstein, the oldest teacher at the school. She was a sixty-five year old sprite of a woman who taught first grade; had been for nearly forty years. Lots of people thought she should retire. Not me. She was a witty lady with a great sense of humor who had a firm but kind way children. I liked her a lot.

“What are you planning on doing with your summer, Ed?” she asked, watching all ten kids on the field run after the soccer ball.

“Oh, not much. Just hang around. You know.”

She bristled in response like I’d just poked her with a sharp stick, “No I don’t know, Ed. You should do something other than ‘hang around,’ she said using finger quotes to poke fun at me. Then she shook her head to indicate her semi-serious disappointment. “Me, I’m going on a month long cruise to Alaska with my friends, Maggie and Becky. I can’t wait.” She gave me a look like, ‘Get with the program buddy and do something interesting with your life.’ A sentiment that made perfect sense, especially after what was about to happen.

I’m forty-five, a bit of a loner and have been single my entire adult life. I live with my big tabby cat, Toby, in a tiny apartment a mile from the school; close enough to walk or ride my bicycle. Long Lake is small town located on the edge of undeveloped farm fields and woodlands twenty miles west of Minneapolis. I’ve taught fifth grade Life Science in the local grade school for the last twenty-one years. Though I’m withdrawn by nature, I love teaching, it’s just that it takes a lot out of me. I treasure my time to myself, but understood what Edith was getting at. I also valued her opinion. When I really thought about it, at my age, maybe I really did need to get a hobby other than the only one I had, collecting old marbles off eBay.

Anyway, her analysis of my life notwithstanding, we’d been having a nice, friendly conversation, when, from the far end of the soccer pitch we heard screams from the kids. “Shit,” I said to Edith.

She looked at me and yelled, “Go,” and I did. I took off running wondering what the hell had happened.

It soon became apparent. Both fifth grade classes were standing where the soccer field met the woods. There were yelling as I ran up. Some were even crying.

Johnny Leibert, one of my prized students met me, “Mr. Mack, Mr. Mack. Jenny’s getting attacked by bees. I think they’re going to kill her.”

The Jenny he was referring to was Jenny Goldenstein, a ten year old tiny waif of a girl, prone to hives and every otherĀ  kind of skin problem you could name. She was also the unluckiest kid I ever knew. Last year she kindly brought her teacher a handpicked bouquet of flowers, including a sprig of poison ivy. She was covered in calamine lotion for nearly a month. If anyone was going to be attacked by bees, it was bound to be her.

I ran to the edge of the woods watching as Jenny frantically waved the attacking swarm away from her head. I could see in an instant that they weren’t your common garden variety of non-dangerous honey bees or anything like that. No. These were yellow jackets, one of nature’s most vicious insects. They could do serious damage by stinging you multiple times. And those stingers hurt. I’d read once that they felt like needles pushing deep into your skin. My heart went out the little girl and I didn’t stop to think. I ran in to rescue her.

“Jenny, Jenny,” I called, “Don’t worry, I’m coming.”

She turned, tears in her eyes, those friggin’ yellow jackets all over her. “Help,” she called except it wasn’t as much a call as it was more of a whisper. She was really frightened. Terrified. Poor little kid.

I grabbed her and swung her in a circle a few times to try to shake some of the yellow jackets off. As I did, I could see what had happened. A soccer ball lay next to a log rotting on the forest floor. The kids must have kicked the ball into the woods and Jenny had run in after it. The ball had hit the log and by the time she got there, she was met with the wrath of what seemed like hundreds upon hundreds of raging, swarming bees.

I turned with her and we fought our way to the edge of the woods, me yelling at the rest of the kids, “Get the hell out of here. The bees are coming.” They ran and I did, too, all the way back to the school. In a few minutes we were all safe.

Fast forward to two hours later. It turned out that Jenny was fine, just a little swollen from the bee stings. She had eleven of them, poor kid. Me? I ended in the hospital – the Hennepin County Medical Center. I guess I had developed an allergy to bee stings over the course of my adult years, unbeknownst to me. Who would have thought it? Certainly not yours truly. I was stung twenty-seven times! But it turned out to be a good thing in the long run even though I was told by the doctors and nurses time and time again that I’d almost died from anaphylactic shock. Let me tell you, that was one sobering thought.

I stayed in the hospital for three days. During my recover I had a chance to think about what Edith had said to me on the soccer field. Specifically, I had time to think about my life. I came to the conclusion that I really did need to get my act together. I need to expand my horizons.

To that end, I accepted an offer Edith made while I was recovering to join her and her friends on the Alaskan Cruise. It might sound weird, me, a guy in his forties going on a cruise ship with three ladies in their sixties, who, by the way, called themselves, “The Girls,” but I don’t care. I’m looking forward to it.

When I accepted the invitation Edith said, “It’ll be nice to have you along, just as long as you don’t cramp our style.”

“Funny,” I told her, playing along, “I’ll try not to.”

She just grinned and pulled out a map to show me the route. It looks like it’ll be a riot. We’re leaving the first week in July.

You know, when you almost die, like I did, it gets you thinking. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will tell you this: If it wasn’t for those damn yellow jackets, I might have ended up spending the summer hunkered down in my tiny apartment with my cat, searching the web for old marbles. When I think of it that way, I shudder. I was on path where I could have easily spent the rest of my life doing just that. What a waste. I’ve got a lot to learn. It’s a big world out there. I’m looking forward to seeing it. Alaska, here I come.