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The Lonely Shed by MLR

      He'd made it here, finally.  Left behind that other place, the one that now just looked like a faint smudge of apricot paint floating above the black horizon.  This place, here: this was where he wanted to be.  Under this blue lamp, by this little building, this shed up on a short rise along the railroad tracks.  Just a lonely little sentinel out in the sandhills, its one small window and rooftop sign fogged a bit from the constant wind but more permanent than the grassy dunes that surrounded it.
      At the sound of an approaching car, he ducked back into the shadows.  A few minutes passed before he saw the ground nearby fog up with white light, transition to red, then fade back to a comforting black.  He slumped down onto the grass, relishing the feel of the wind blowing through his whiskers, even if it was a little dusty and smelled like herbicide.
      Parker ended up being the one to pick him up.  They made hoses, as most people who work there could tell you.  Not usually those green garden hoses, though.  Mostly those really big, heavy-duty hoses that Halliburton uses to pump oil from the ocean floor to the surface.  Parker was based in Cleveland, he thought, but he wasn't sure.  And he thought maybe they also made other things besides hoses, but he wasn't sure about that, either.  They gave him a nice place to live, out there by the factory in an old abandoned farm house, but they never gave him much access to the outside world, so he didn't know a whole lot of things yet.  At least, not about Parker.  That was one thing that girl never wanted to talk about.
      He'd overheard them talking about his sale.  It sounded like they got a good deal.  Never the specific dollar amount, though he had to say, he was curious what dollar value his life actually held.  That was one of the main topics of discussion between him and the others back when he'd still lived in the facility.  Sort of a point of pride. 
      "Did you hear?  White got taken up by Norfolk Southern for four-hundred grand!"
      "That's nothing: I heard that Shorttail got sold to some Chinese company for over a million."
      "That's crazy; Shorttail doesn't even speak Chinese!"
      It got boring pretty quickly, though, so then they'd just fall back into relative silence, thinking, wondering how much longer they'd be there and what kind of work they'd get once they got out.
      A few more cars passed by as he sat, and he huddled up a little tighter just on instinct.  He wondered what they would think if they saw him, saw their headlights turn his black eyes into disks of light.  Maybe nothing.  Nobody at Parker seemed to mind his appearance, anyway, at least, not after the first week or two.  Some of them really liked him, even.  The girl, of course, his caretaker, who used to call him rat-face and pat him on the head, and then she'd tell him he was a pretty smart little guy.  She brought him books, and they would sit for hours at a time over cups of sweet tea, talking about the outside world.  He used to tell her that he loved how things like power plants and oil refineries looked in the pictures from some of the old magazines she brought him, and so she decided one day to take him out to go visit the front gate of a coal plant late at night.  It was fascinating to look upon, covered in an orange glow, like some kind of Gothic cathedral of industry.
      But it wasn't the most memorable thing from the trip.  No... for some reason, that honor belonged to this place, this little shed.  He hadn't asked her what it was for.  He actually didn't want to know, because that would have ruined the romance.  But he did know that someday he wanted to see it up close, and he knew that that was the kind of want that really needed to be filled on his own terms.  Some wants were just like that.
      It was starting to get chilly.  Maybe it was time to leave, go find a barn somewhere to crash in for the night, and then head out again the next day.  He turned his head and regarded the shed for a few minutes more, then stood up and began walking.
      He made his way in the blackness, being careful to stay within the dells when he could.  He crawled through the countryside, all of it privately owned, speckled here and there with half-collapsed sheds or grain silos standing next to structurally sound but esthetically broken farm houses, until he saw a pool of light.  The place looked about normal, from a distance, like any other house along any highway he'd been allowed to see.  There was a barn on the premises, paint-free, with a large some-decades-old hole in the roof.  He sniffed the air for canines and smelled none, then crept up slowly on a propane tank and a rusted beater of a 50s model truck.  All he could hear was the buzzing electrical sound of the arc lamp illuminating the front steps.  No lights were on in the house.
      He continued on toward the barn, looking for an easy point of ingress, and saw that the leftmost door was tilted, hanging on by a single hinge.  The interior of it smelled like dust, oil, and poison.  Whatever hay was lying around was a bit too dry to have much of a fragrance beyond that.  There was a ladder leading to the hayloft, and a quick scamper up showed him that most of the loft was still solid enough for him to walk on.  There were old tins and cans and bottles and things up there that seemed like they might have come from the same era as the truck, all of them just scattered about randomly, ever so slowly dissolving away in the elements.  It seemed like whoever owned this place rarely if ever paid it a visit these days. 
      It was a good place to crash for the night.  The only bother was the sound of the wind whistling softly through the hole in the roof.  He lay himself down in the shadows, away from the leaking glow of the arc lamp outside, and closed his eyes to sleep.
      #
      Voices woke him.  They all sounded relatively calm, although there was a twinge of annoyance in one of them.
      "You say you're looking for what?  A lost boy?" the annoyed one was saying.
      "Yes, sir.  We think he might have come through here last night.  I don't suppose you heard any disturbance, maybe one of your dogs started barking, something like that?"
      "I don't have any dogs."
      "So you didn't hear anything?"
      "No sir, I did not.  What's the boy look like?  I could keep an eye out for him and give you a call if I find him."
      There was a brief pause.  "He... ah..."
      Another voice broke in.  "He's twelve years old, almost thirteen, with brown hair and dark eyes.  He has some... unusual features, so you'd probably recognize him right away if you saw him."
      "Hmmm..."  He imagined the farmer stroking his chin, or maybe readjusting the baseball cap he was almost certainly wearing.  "Well, I haven't seen anyone with unusual features today, and I sure didn't hear anything funny going on last night, but I'll keep an eye out.  How can I contact you if I find him?"  The last sentence sounded bored, a duty.
      One of the others gave a cell number.  "I don't suppose we can... take a look around?" he followed up.
      There was another pause.  "Well...."
      "We don't mean to intrude."
      Yet another pause.  "I don't think I'd really like you snooping around here.  I know the place best anyway.  I'll take a look myself and give you a call if I find him, okay?"
      "Sure."  There was just a hint of trepidation in the reply, but what else were they supposed to do?  He imagined they were wishing for one of those memory eraser doodads right about now, the ones from that comic... what was it called?  Men in Black.
      "So long, then.  I hope you find your boy."
      He heard them walking off.  There was a car door slammed, an engine started, and the sound of gravel crunching under wheels.  And then they were gone.
      He waited for a while, listening for the old farmer, seeing if he'd have to make a run for it right away.  The fellow stood around, muttering to himself, probably scanning the horizons and thinking about if he should bother searching the place at all.  Eventually, he walked away, and a distant door creaked and then slammed shut.
      Time to get moving, then.  He climbed down the old ladder, quiet as he could be, and walked to the barn door to poke his head out and take a look around.
      "Hold it," a voice said, right behind him.
      He turned around, slowly, hands raised and tail stiff.  The farmer was there, a clean-shaven older fellow wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, and, indeed, a red and white baseball cap.  He thought he'd have been pointing a rifle, but he wasn't.  Just standing there with his arms crossed, looking both annoyed and curious, somehow at the same time.  But not afraid.
      "Jesus Mary and Joseph," he muttered.  "You must be the boy those two were looking for."  He raised a graying eyebrow.
      "That's right."
      A brief perplexed look came to his face upon hearing him speak.  But it disappeared just as quickly.  "I guess I wasn't expecting quite this unusual of features."
      "You're not... surprised?"
      This brought a long, deep pause, followed by a long, deep sigh.  "You know, a little bit, I guess.  But I've read enough conspiracy theories in my time."  He tapped his chin.  "Interesting to see that some of 'em were right.  Just makes me wonder what else they're keeping from us.  You know?  Maybe Roswell wasn't a weather-balloon after all."  He smirked.
      "It wasn't.  It was for checking if the Russians were secretly blowing up nukes."
      "That so."
      "I read it in a magazine."
      They both stood there for a time, watching each other, maybe wondering why the other wasn't panicking in any way.  And his heart was racing, but something about the farmer's smile was all right.  Pleasant, inviting.  Certainly not panic-inducing. 
      Eventually, the farmer shook his head and let his hands drop to his sides.  "Well, this puts me in a bit of spot, doesn't it?  What am I supposed to do with you?"
      "I guess I'm in your hands, now."
      "Who were those two, anyway?  Scientists?"
      "No... they just work for Parker."
      "Parker?"
      He nodded.
      "Is that where you came from?  That old hose factory?"
      He nodded again, slowly.  "Yes.  They purchased me from the military as a laborer, and I ran away."
      He suddenly looked concerned.  "Did they mistreat you?" 
      "Not really, no."  He paused, nose twitching, thinking about why he left in the first place.  "I guess I just wanted to be on my own.  Do my own thing."
      This brought another bout of silence and staring.  It must have been a lot for the old man to take in all at once.  The rat wondered how exactly he was handling it.  From his scent, very well.
      Eventually, the farmer broke the silence again.  "So where were you trying to get to?"
      "Nevada."
      He raised another eyebrow.  "That's a long ways off.  You were gonna'... walk there?"
      "I was going to try."
      More silence, more staring.  But the conversation could have been much more awkward than it was.  "Tell you what..." the farmer said.  "Why don't you come on inside and I'll fix you up something to eat.  You must be pretty tired and hungry, sleeping in that old hayloft all night.  What kind of things do you eat?"
      "I'm not picky."
      This got a nod.  "I'll do pancakes, then.  That's one thing I do well.  Come on."  He waved a hand and started walking toward his rotten old house.
      The interior looked a shade nicer than the exterior, although parts of it probably could have still used some work.  The wallpaper in the kitchen looked like it hadn't been replaced in half a century, and there was a broken boiler sitting in the corner in the living room, just to the right of the front door.  But the rest of it had a homey, just-on-the-edge-of-the-west feel to it.  Most of it seemed to have felt a woman's touch, but there didn't appear to be a woman around anymore.
      The old farmer went right into the kitchen and started clanking around.  The rat followed him and sat at the table, one of those old folding deals with chipping apple-green paint.  He was feeling rather hungry, actually.  He hadn' t eaten since breakfast the day before, and then he'd walked all day and most of the night.  Even the smell of the batter was making his stomach growl.
      "Not sure what I'm gonna' do about you," the old man said as he beat the hell out of the batter with a wooden spoon.  "You said Parker bought you, right?  So that makes you their property.  So if I just let you go, it'd sort of be like theft."
      "That's true."
      The batter was making soft squelching sounds.  The farmer poured a touch of oil in a cast-iron frying pan and let it start heating up.  "Then again, no one ever has to know you were here, and that I saw you."
      "That's also true."
      He poured the batter into the pan and it started sizzling like crazy.  "Butter and syrup both?  Or maybe jam?"
      "What kind of jam?"
      "Crab apple.  Got quite a few jars of it in the cellar.  Not much else you can use crab apples for, and I got a tree growing in the yard."
      "That sounds great."
      He flipped the cake, and it started sizzling again.  The top side looked perfectly browned.  "You gonna' want two?  Or maybe more?"
      "Two is fine.  I don't eat all that much."
      "What kind of food they feed you at Parker?"
      "Cheese."
      A pause.  "What, is that a joke?"
      "Yes.  Sorry.  I don't talk with people all that much."
      "I imagine."  He slid the cake onto a plate, then rummaged around in the cupboard for some jam.  "But you're doing okay.  So what did you want to do in Nevada?"
      He thought about it for a minute.  "I was thinking about going up into the mountains.  I don't think there are many people there, and I wanted to explore the mines.  Maybe I could find one to live in."
      "Hm."  He found the jam, then started looking for a knife to spread it with.  "You got a name?"
      "No."
      He turned around at this.  "No?"
      "I just have a military ID.  I mean... everyone at the facility called me 'brownie', and everyone at Parker called me 'rat-face', so maybe those are my names."
      "Brownie or Rat-face, huh?"  He turned back around and added just a touch more oil to the pan, which slid easily on the hot metal.  "I guess I like Brownie better.  Actually sounds like a name."  He fixed up the second pancake in silence, then slapped it on top of the other one and brought those and the jam jar to the table.  "Here's a butter knife for the jam.  Eat up."
      He did.  Everything was really good.  He'd tried making pancakes himself, once, at the farmhouse, but they turned out misshapen, burned in parts, and undercooked in others.  There must have been some secret to it that this old farmer had learned.  When he was finished, he turned to him.  "Thank you very much.  It was amazing."
      "I said I could do it, right?"  He paused, thinking.  When he spoke again, his voice had lost some volume.  "Learned the recipe from my wife.  She passed away about two years ago.  Lymphoma."
      "I'm sorry."
      "Well, it happens a lot around here.  Most of my buddies have some kind of cancer, too.  Not me.  Not yet, by the grace of God."
      "It sounds rough."
      "We all got it a little rough."  He thought for a minute.  "Sounds like you do, too."
      He considered it, then shook his head.  "No, I don't think so.  I'm just selfish, I guess.  I think the others stay where they're supposed to."  He thought about it.  "We don't really have rights, but the men from the government still check up every now and then to make sure we aren't being treated wrong, and we never are.  I mean, I never was anyway."
      "It's not selfish to want to choose your own path, I don't think.  That's something everyone wants, and something we believe in this country that everyone should have."
      "I guess."  He twitched his nose, shaking his thin whiskers about just a bit.  "Maybe we'd get that, too, if there were more of us?"
      "How many of you are there?"
      He thought about it for a minute.  "Maybe fifty or so."
      "That many?  Hell, there's towns around here with less people than that in 'em."
      "Well, maybe we should all escape and start our own town."
      The farmer laughed a bit at that.  "In Nevada?"
      "Sure."
      "Well, if I see any more of you guys, I'll be sure to send them out that way."
      He looked at the farmer, into the old man's eyes.  The smile faded, slowly, until it was just a ghost of a smirk.
      "It sounds like I already decided what to do about you, doesn't it?"  He shook his head.  "I guess I have.  There's not much else I can do and feel good about myself doing it.  Not after serving you pancakes."  He picked up the empty plate and carried it over to the sink, where he turned on the tap and began to wash it.  "You know, there's a lot of open land out there for a while, at least until you get to around... I dunno', Green River, that area.  You'd have a hard time keeping out of sight.  I can't drive you all the way to Nevada, but I could at least take a day and get you that far."
      "Really?"
      He nodded.  "I'm practically retired these days anyway, so no one's gonna' notice if I'm gone for a bit.  If anyone asks, I'll just tell 'em my daughter was lonely and wanted me to come visit her in Laramie."  He paused.  "She's a graduate student there.  Physics.  Bright girl.  All that stuff is way over my head."
      "You're doing so much for me, even though I broke into your barn, and even though I look like a rat."
      "Yeah, well, we can't all be made pretty, can we?  Let me just hit the bathroom and grab my wallet and my coat, and we can head on out."
#
      They drove most of the way just listening to the radio, mostly blue grass and country music, with the occasional little news story thrown in.  The old farmer had gotten him a cowboy hat to wear, so that if people passing them on the highway--and there were a lot of those, the way he drove--happened to glance over at them, they'd be less able to notice the giant rat sitting in the passenger seat.  He stared out the window a lot, watching the hills roll by, then the farms, then the hills again, then bluffs, and back to hills as they started heading into Wyoming.  The old farmer took the less obvious route, until he finally meandered into Cheyenne from a little-used highway north of the city and then got onto the interstate.  He wanted to look out more when they drove by the huge oil refinery, but there was too much traffic for him to be pressing his pink nose up against the window like that.  But the glances he caught were impressive, and he could sure smell it.  Probably everyone in the city could.
      The way became mostly clear on the long windy stretch through the rocks toward Laramie, and once they passed that exit, things thinned out even more.  The only objects of interest to look at out here were a few oil pumps hammering up and down, up and down, wind turbines, and big wooden racks strewn about the hills to block the snows when they came.  It was a desolate place, and eventually he found himself drifting off to sleep.
      When he woke, it was to the sound of the car door closing and the old farmer settling back into the driver's seat.  He handed him a bright red hot dog with mustard and relish on it, as well as a root beer.  "Thought you might be getting hungry," he said.  They were stopped at a funky little town that dribbled its way just off the offramp, where the only mildly prominent building was an A-frame with a faded sign on it that said "Bait sold here".  He took the hot dog, sniffed it a few times, and ate it in three bites.  He had been getting pretty hungry.
      "Where are we?" he asked.
      "Getting pretty close to Rock River," the farmer replied, buckling his seat belt.  "Next big town after that is Green River, and then it's either keep going west or head on into Utah."  This question answered, the farmer started the car back up and off they went, farther west down the interstate.
      Sipping on the root beer made the monotony dissipate just a little bit, but there still wasn't very much to see.  He found his mind wandering as the hills rolled by, wondering just where that little dirt road led, what might have been buried out there in the grass, who'd been there before and who was there now.  He thought about kids growing up out there, playing with each other and no one else since no one else was around, but still playing, getting to know the nooks and crannies of this land that looked featureless on the surface but doubtless held many secrets.  He imagined old junked up cars sitting out in the middles of fields with bullet holes in them, beer cans piled up behind someone's trailer, rooster-shaped weathervanes on old barn roofs.  The farther west he got, the more desolate things became, it seemed, and all in all that was better for him.  But it made him a little sad.  All the cultured places of the world were off limits to him; he could never walk the streets of New York or Paris or Kyoto.  He had to stay out here, out in the ugliness where nobody really wanted to live unless they had some kind of problem with the rest of the world, or if the rest of the world had some kind of problem with them.
      They rode through Rock River, which looked more like a vast parking lot with some buildings than a real town, and neither felt a desire to stop there.  The only other stop they made was when they were around halfway to Green River, and the farmer pulled off the interstate onto a lonely county road so that they could both take a private bathroom break in the grass.  As they were heading back to the car after this break, the farmer stopped and looked at him, the wind blowing strongly enough to make him lean.
      "I was thinking..." he said.  "I was thinking about--"  He hesitated, then waved a hand.  "Well, nevermind.  Let's just keep going.  If you want, we could get a hotel room in town, so you get one more night in a bed.  If you want."
      He nodded.  "That sounds nice."
      They got back into the car and did a three-point turn to head back to the interstate, and from there they went to Green River.  The radio stayed off this time.  The farmer said he didn't want to hear it anymore.  All those old country songs were depressing.
      The sun was getting big and red as they turned off the interstate and then drove under it to get into the little Wyoming town.  They petered about for a while, seeking a hotel or a motel or something.  The city plan here had the town split in half by the railroad.  As they headed south and came into a marginally lively business district, they found a junky old place with a vacancy sign and pulled into the dirt lot.  It was tucked right up against one of the bluffs, and there was a steep dirt road leading up the hill behind it that was supposed to be for slowing down out of control semis, but was probably mostly used for skateboarding or sledding.  "Be right back," the farmer said, and, leaving the car running, he stepped out and walked into the office to go get them a room.  Shortly after, he came back with a key and idled the car into a space in front of a door that said 306, even though there was only one floor.  They both stepped out, himself keeping the hat down low so no one glancing their way could see his face, and walked inside.
      They sat on the beds, looking to each other.  He knew the farmer had something on his mind.  He hadn't wanted to talk about it in the car for some reason, but it was all over his face now.  But it would be rude to impose, so they both sat in silence, until the farmer gathered enough courage to bring up whatever had been brewing in his brain since that bathroom break in the field.
      "It seems wrong," he said.  "Just letting you out of the car to go wander around the countryside like that."  He broke eye contact and, for the first time since they'd met, removed his baseball cap.  He wasn't balding yet.  It was nice to see.  "You seem like just a kid, just a boy."
      "I can fend for myself, I think.  They were gonna' use us in the war, but... I mean, I guess it wasn't very practical after all."
      But the farmer just shook his head.  "I dunno'.  Maybe you can, maybe you can't.  I just feel strange about all this."  His eyes drifted up again.  "I just feel strange, because when I first saw you coming down that ladder, I thought you were some kind of... well, I don't really want to say 'monster', because it wasn't like that, but... you know what I mean?"
      "I am a monster."
      This also got a head-shake.  "No, that's the thing.  You're not.  I guess I'm just surprised, because when it comes right down to it, when I first saw you in that barn, before I ever got a look at your face, at least, I never could have imagined that you'd be so... so damned normal.  And it just makes me wonder about a lot of things."  He began stroking his chin, a chin which probably never had more than a day's worth of stubble on it.  "I mean, you're not one of God's creatures.  Not really.  You were invented."  He said it like it was a dirty word.  And in this context, to him, it really was.  "But despite that... you're normal as any other boy I've ever met.  So I just don't get it.  I never would have thought it, that they could actually get that right."
      The rat just watched him think about it.  It was all very high-minded stuff, and he didn't know much about it, so he couldn't think of anything to say.  But it turned out he didn't need to say much.
      "I mean," the farmer said, "if you really want to go hide out in Nevada, I won't stop you, but I was wondering...."  He paused for a long while, staring at the cheap print of what was probably a local painter's depiction of the Flaming Gorge that was hanging on the wall above the TV.  "Well, my daughter's been gone a while, and my wife is gone, so I'm alone on that old farm.  If you wanted to, you'd be welcome to... stay with me a while."
      When he said it, the farmer once more turned those kindly eyes to him, and he smiled his sweet smile, the smile that made him trust the farmer enough to get into his car and drive all the way out to Green River, Wyoming with him.  And that smile was enough, really, to make his decision for him.
      He could go see Nevada some other day, then.  Maybe on another road trip like this one.  But before then, he'd have to make it back to that little shed by the highway and thank it.
END

The Lonely Shed

MLR

Just a story about an experiment who runs into an old farmer.

I spent some time trying to find a magazine to submit this to, but eventually I gave up, so now I'm just publishing it here.

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Rating:
General
Category:
Literary / Story

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Comments

  • Link

    Pretty good story, I especially liked how you handled the introduction by giving us some form of action as an entry point then transitioning to a sort of flashback sequence. You grabbed the audience's attention off the bat, THEN chose to start slowly revealing information on the scenario at hand. Kept me interested to see how the current situation had really occurred.

    Also this sentence: "He had to stay out here, out in the ugliness where nobody really wanted to live unless they had some kind of problem with the rest of the world, or if the rest of the world had some kind of problem with them." I think this carries a subtle message to it, in that those who perceive the world as having a problem with them really have a problem with the world. It's because you suggest they share a community that makes me think like that, both groups are literally lumped together as a 'problem society.' Then again I do tend to let my imagination run wild when it comes to using and interpreting symbolism and metaphors like that, I could be misinterpreting but I like to think it's how different readers interpret different meanings from the same story that makes writing interesting. Either way good stuff.

    • Link

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for the nice comment. I'm glad the intro works now; the original version was 1000 words longer, because I had that much more exposition in it. But I sat down and read it about 6 times, cutting a paragraph each time, until I figured I'd eradicated all the unnecessary crap.

      That is more or less what I meant. I used to live in that part of the country, so I kind of know how people are there. Outwardly very friendly and welcoming, but they really, really don't want you to stay.

  • Link

    Remember the first time I read this. Still a great piece, Frank <3

    • Link

      Well thanks for reading it again!