This the rough draft of the first story in my 52 short story challenge Be sure to check back next week for the final draft! As always, thank you for taking the time to read 🙂
Rock Candy Whiskey
From it’s peak, the biggest mountain in Huntland is covered in trees, but at its base, land crowded with pines and oaks opens into an expanse of field and farmland. My grandparent’s home was there. It sat right where the forest burst open and soft grass began to roll. It lives in my mind now as it was when I was a girl.
I remember so well how the highway changed once we hit Tennessee, it wound around mountains and through deep valleys teasing my sister and me, making the journey a little longer than it might have been if the road never bent, if somehow it shot straight over tall mountains, or plowed right through them.
“Try to go to sleep girls” Mama would say, turning around every few minutes to hush giggles that couldn’t be quieted when day turned to night and we had hours left to drive. Daddy would smile when we talked a little lower but kept right on planning our week. Mama shook her head, making sure we saw her exhaustion, instead of the effort she made not to smile. Anna and I would cuddle in closer and draw the blanket over our heads.
“We’ll try to go to sleep mama” Anna said, a false promise I couldn’t bring myself to make, and the drive would go on and keep going until the only lights to guide our car on the mountain roads were the two attached to Daddy’s Chrysler. The motion of the car and the quiet caused Anna’s conversation to slow and her snores begin, just when Mama’s head dropped and rested on the window by her side.
Usually I was the last of the three to fall asleep, but one year when I was 10, I held on until our car left pavement and hit the long gravel road that wound up to Aunt Boot’s front door. The familiar jostling and crunching beneath our four wheels filled me with excitement and I moved my hand over to wake Anna and let her know we were there when I caught Daddy’s eyes in the rearview mirror and saw him shake his head and the creases beside each eye bunch up so I knew that if I could see his mouth, it would be smiling too. Daddy went slow over the wooden bridge that carried us across a creek bed, then stopped on the other side and nodded. I slipped my shoes on and opened the door with as little noise as I could, so I didn’t wake the others and breathed in heaven in the form of mountain air. The door closed behind me with a click and Daddy waited for a moment before starting down the winding road over the final hill to his destination. I watched the car move like a sauntering turtle before I turned away and looked at rolling hills and trees. In that moment and in so many after, that expanse was all that mattered. A hard wind blew, making the pine trees and my hair dance. I closed my eyes and smiled, imprinting that night on my mind and keeping it for darker days to come, then I ran. The hill I aimed for looked like nothing at all but I knew better and halfway up I bore into it hard, and fought for the top. I stayed for only a minute then ran down the other side, carried by the wind at my back into the woods, through trees on the path where I learned to walk. The small stream we’d driven across cut through the woods and I jumped over it in one leap, leaving beaten down dirt for a shortcut that was a better known secret than I thought. There was no moon, each step I took was remembered from summers and Christmases. I wonder now, why it never crossed my mind to be afraid of the dark and the mysterious creatures that sang their songs and prowled the night around me but I guess that fear never comes when you’re at home unless the walls of warmth and peace are penetrated and in those days, in those woods and on that mountain, all was protected.
I got to Aunt Boot’s just as Daddy was bringing in the last bag from the car. Mama was standing on the porch talking to the Aunts who waited for me. The uncles and Papa sat in rocking chairs away from the women smoking and talking in their usual way of importance though the conversation probably revolved around hunting or fishing.
I climbed over the split rail fence and was greeted by an uneven chorus of voices. Aunt Boots reached me first and pulled me into her slight body for a hug. I was almost taller than her but she patted my face the way she did when I was a toddler begging for candy. “Oh Hannah, you’re gettin’ so tall.”
I was sent to bed after a round of hugs and generic complements. Anna had slept through it all, and in the morning I knew she’d be upset Daddy had carried her in from the car without waking her. Seeing everyone for the first time was one of her favorite parts of our trips home. I snuck into the big room at the top of the stairs, lined with twin beds and sleeping cousins. No one stirred when I walked to the end of the room and climbed into cold sheets on the last empty bed. On one side of me Anna snored, on the other my cousin Ben opened one eye and smiled. “Well it took y’all long enough!” He said in a whisper.
“Hi Ben!” I had only just laid my head down when I sat up again.
“Well what time is it?”
Ben and I were the oldest of all the children sleeping around us, born on the same day one year apart, him the year before me. He liked to use his advanced age as an advantage any time there were major decisions to be made between the two of us. It was a constant tie breaker during our games of hide and seek. When we played civil war soldiers, I was the general of the yankee team of cousins and he was the rebel commander. “I’m older, it’s only fair.”
It wasn’t, but I never minded. If there was a little more candy left in the bag he was given or one more chocolate, he saved it for me. “Here,” he’d say with a smile. “You’re younger.” We were best friends and there wasn’t a day of my young life that I didn’t wish I could stay in those mountains and live with him and Aunt Boots instead of driving down the dirt road that was so much sadder when we set out for our trip to Atlanta and the house I lived in with Mama and Daddy.
“We just got in” I said then noticed Anna turn over and scratch her nose before settling into sleep again.
“I have an idea.” Ben said getting out of bed and looking underneath it for his slippers. He handed me my pair and put a finger over his mouth before leading me to the other end of the room. He opened the small door that we had to crawl through get into, and turned on a flashlight I didn’t know he had from his pocket. The room before us was an attic, but if I hadn’t known that it would have seemed like an opening into pitch black nothingness. I shook my head and Ben laughed a little too loud and pushed me forward, coming in behind me and closing the door.
“We can’t talk or they’ll hear us.” Ben said.
He took the lead and we made our way through the attic to a corner that was open enough for us to see through. The window on the wall above was open and I motioned to it. Ben shook his head and pointed. I looked out and saw all of the aunts and uncles, Mama, Daddy and Papa on the porch.
Adolescent curiosity makes magic out of mud pies and I looked at Ben whose smile was big and full of teeth and could hardly contain my excitement. The only bad part of our trips were bedtime and missing all the fun the adults had at night, but Ben had found us a free pass and it might as well have been the whole world. We laid on our stomachs, our heads touching, reminding one another to keep quiet and we listened.
The screen door slammed and Aunt Boots came out coughing. “What’s the trouble Auntie?” Daddy said, getting up out of his place in the rocking chair so she could sit down. Out in the yard the dogs barked and played, kicking up clouds of dirt that faded into the dark. Papa Jim threw a stick at the dogs as he walked up to the porch steps and told them to “get on y’damn mutts.” Ben looked at me and we smiled. Papa Jim would get the stiff eye from Boots if he said that when he knew we could hear, but no one knew we were so close and so Mama shook her head, and Papa Jim smiled at her. Daddy went across the creaky boards of the porch and hugged Jim and said something to him we couldn’t hear. “It’s good t’ see you folks.” Uncle Jim said to Mama and Daddy then went and hugged each of the aunts sitting in their chairs, as they rocked in time with Aunt Boots. “Well where are the boys Jim?” Boots said.
“They’ll be down later Mama.” Jim took off his hat and sat down next to Daddy, fanning himself and the mosquitoes I knew buzzed around his head and neck.
I slapped one off my forehead and Ben put his finger over his lips. “Hush you. You’re gonna get us caught.” After an hour of listening to things I didn’t care about anyway, who was sick and who was getting better, I wondered how long Ben wanted to sit still in the dark attic. Sweat fell off my cheeks and arms in beads and got so bad that not even the mosquitoes were interested in me anymore. I knew it was just as bad for Ben, I could see the tiny welts raising on his arms and face. All I wanted was to itch and drink a big glass of Aunt Boot’s sweet tea but Ben kept hushing me and the boring conversation went on until we were both asleep in the same position we’d been sitting in on our stomachs, the only difference was that our heads rested on our sweaty arms.
I’m not sure how much later it happened but the sky was still just as dark, and the moon still hidden when I felt Ben jump. I opened my eyes to see Minnie, the old barn cat sitting on Ben’s back licking his head then pawing it, and settling in. I mouthed, “I wonder what we missed?” Ben shrugged so that the cat in between his shoulder blades rocked a little. Minnie didn’t like the movement and told Ben so, with a bat of her paw to the back of his head. “If you do that again y’ole wildcat, I’ll throw you through this hole onto the ground.” I thought she must have understood because she growled low and short from the back of her throat, then closed her eyes and went to sleep.
Everyone was still on the porch, Uncle Jim and Daddy still sat on the steps facing one another with their backs against the wooden railing, Mama sat beside Daddy, her eyes closed, Aunt Boots, Aunt Betsy, Aunt Mae and Aunt Cathleen still rocked in their chairs and talked a few beats above a whisper to one another about the church picnic on Sunday. Ben pointed to the other end of the attic, a sure signal he was just as done as I was with our fruitless effort to spy on the adults, when his Mama opened the front door with a tray of food. She and her sister had been inside preparing food for the picnic but because of Uncle Jim’s prodding and the intense heat of the kitchen, they took their places on the porch, the one small space on the farm that made time move a little slower and gave you the freedom to lay your head back, close your eyes and rest from the chores of the day. For a long while nobody spoke, nothing but the crickets song, ice shifting in mason jars and the occasional cry of an owl disturbed the silence. Shattering the moment of peace Aunt Boots coughed, patted her chest with a wrinkled hand, coughed again, then sipped water out of her glass.
“What’s the matter with you auntie?” Daddy smiled.
“Oh, nothin’ but a cough.” She said.
“Not so Boots,” Aunt Cathleen stopped rocking, leaned forward across Mae and said to her sister. “You’ve had that cough all week.”
“She won’t listen to go to the doctor” Aunt Betsy said and Aunt Boots rolled her eyes and swatted her hand in her sister’s direction before another coughing fit came over her and she brought it back to cover her mouth.
“Well now, Aunt Boots I know what you need.” Daddy said with a smile I didn’t understand still on his face. “We need to make you some rock candy.”
I was looking at Aunt Mae when daddy said what he did and she smiled and hit her palm on the arm of the weather beaten rocker. “Do you think any a’those boys com in’ down from Nashville will bring some whiskey?” she asked Daddy.
“Mae!” Betsy and Cathleen said in unison. As far as I knew, none of the women sitting side by side had ever tasted alcohol in their lives.
Ben pinched my arm and his mouth fell open wide. Last summer I’d heard one of Uncle Jim’s friend’s use the word “teetotaler” when he talked about Aunt Boots, and I knew from asking Mama that the word meant someone who didn’t drink alcohol. I’d never noticed the lack of it before, but when I asked Daddy if we were teetotalers too he laughed and said he guessed we probably were, except for Christmas, and New Years, when he went hunting, and whenever a baby was born. Ben knew better, he lived with Aunt Boots, and for her and her sisters there were no exceptions.
“I’ll tell you what, I brought up a fifth of bourbon, in case a’ snake bites, I’ll go get it from the car and we can make you up some?”
“Jeffrey Colton, who do you think you are bringing Bourbon Whiskey to this farm? Have you lost your mind?” Aunt Boots stared at Daddy.
Ben whispered in my ear, “I bet you she’ll still turn him over her knee.”
Daddy stood up laughing, digging his keys out of his pockets and walked down off the porch. “You don’t think I’d bring it in your house without you knowing do you? That’s why I kept it in the car.” Uncle Jim went off the porch with Daddy, Mama and the aunts looked at one another and smiled.
“No way she’ll drink it.” Ben said.
When they came back from the car, Mama had gone inside and brought out a bag of peppermints that Aunt boots used as treats for the kids whenever we were especially helpful. All four aunts shook their heads, until Aunt Boots coughed again and each leaned forward to see if she was ok. Daddy unscrewed the lid off an empty mason jar and filled it with Bourbon. The younger aunts and Mama sat back and laughed at Daddy and Uncle Jim, bent over the jar dropping in peppermints by the handful like children pouring over a new gift on Christmas. The aunts sat in their chairs and looked disinterested except for Aunt Boots, who looked to me like she might be coming around. After the last peppermint was dropped into the jar, daddy screwed on the lid and shook it up. Uncle Jim didn’t think he was doing it right, so he took the jar and shook it himself while Mae, Betsy and Cathleen declared that they wouldn’t touch the stuff but looked a little as if they might, if convinced. Uncle Jim kept shaking the jar, Aunt Boots coughed, the slow creak of the chairs in motion kept rocking on.
Daddy set the jar on the rail and uncle Jim went in the house to get a handful of spoons. “Who has a cough?” he asked, shutting the door with care behind him. “How long do you have t’ wait?” Aunt Boots asked
“A few days is usually best.” Daddy said with a straight face that did a bad job of hiding amusement. “By then it’ll have turned into a syrup. You remember? Papa used to do it like that.”
Aunt Boots coughed.
“Well,” Boots said “Give me just a little.” Just as Uncle Jim pushed the door open with his shoulder and without looking at Aunt Boots handed her a spoon.
“Don’t you smile at me boy, I can still wear your tail out.”
Ben laughed next to me. “Told ya.”
Daddy unscrewed the jar and Aunt Boots dipped her soup spoon into peppermint flavored whiskey, cupping her hand under the utensil as the brought it to her wrinkled lips. The other aunts looked on and waited as she drank down the spoonful, licked her lips and looked at Daddy. There was a rumble in her throat but she didn’t cough. “Well Jeff, I think that did help a little.”
Ben wiped sweat from his forehead, looked at me, and said “No. That didn’t just happen.” I told him that I thought it had and he kept shaking his head with a bigger smile than I’d ever seen, “So much for the evils of alcohol.”
“Well,” I said, not wanting all his theories on life to be thrown out the attic window in one night. “We haven’t seen what it’ll do to her yet. Maybe she’ll go mad and start lighting things on fire.”
“Somehow, I doubt it.”
Before we fell asleep again, and spent the night swimming in our own sweat, we saw the jar passed from Daddy to Uncle Jim, then to Aunt Boots three more times then before the cough that Aunt Mae and Aunt Betsy had developed needed soothing too and they each dipped their spoons in and fished out a piece of whiskey covered candy and peppermint flavored whiskey. Ben and I laid our heads down, our noses almost touching in the tight corner of the attic, and before I drifted to sleep again, Ben’s hot breath on my face whispered over and over again, “I saw it and I don’t believe it.”
In the morning I woke in bed, and saw Daddy standing above me, bringing the sheet to tuck under my chin. “No,” I said in a half awake daze. “I’m melting.”
“Well it serves you right for spying.” Daddy said patting my head.
“Daddy” I sat up before he left the room, and saw every bed empty but two, and ruffled sheets and quilts tossed on the floor and over the foot of some of the beds, thrown in haste to get to breakfast and all the fun we children knew happened while we slept.
“You need to sleep. I don’t even want to know how late you were up last night.”
“Did Aunt Cathleen ever have any?” For a minute Daddy looked like he might scold me for the question. He looked past the open door of the room before he answered. “You can get up if you’re not tired, if you weren’t awake to see your Aunt Cathleen dancing, you weren’t up that late after all.”
He shut the door behind him, and the room went quiet again. Downstairs everyone clambered for biscuits and bacon before cutting a path across the left field and over the hill into the lake for a morning swim. By the time Ben and I made it to breakfast there wasn’t much left, but Aunt Boots set a plate aside for each of us and kissed our heads while we ate before reminding us that we needed to wait a little while before swimming. “Yes M’am” I said pushing Ben to move faster and get outside while he shoved the last half of a biscuit in his mouth.
The screen door slammed behind me, and from inside I was warned to be more gentle with it. I apologized and turned to feel the cool morning air hit every part of my skin that had been so ravaged by mosquitoes and covered in sweat the night before. I could hear my cousins and sister splashing in the lake and Uncle Jim shout “Cannonballlllll” as he no doubt, jumped from the dock onto unsuspecting children. Mama hated that but I could see her smile in spite of herself. Ben was halfway through the field when I took the first step off the porch. I noticed an empty jar sitting on the bottom step and ran past it, only to turn and look back. At the bottom was a brown residue and 4 remaining peppermints.
Callie Armstrong © 2014