**I wrote this short story for a Creative Writing class at Texas Tech as a college student. It was definitely my favorite class ever!
It was nothing like I had remembered, yet somehow all the same. The weeping willows still sway in the front yard and the small currents still crashed lightly against the wooden dock in the backyard. The sound of crickets and locusts chirping still made for the sam pesky annoyance while bringing a sense of calmness to the still mornings. The only thing that had seemed to change was everything’s size. What once seemed to be a large throne-like rocking chair on my front porch was merely a rugged seat worn with age. My father’s old woodshed had shrunk too and didn’t seem as decent of a hiding place as it once was. I stood at the tip of the walkway continuing to examine my childhood home, allowing myself to reminisce on old memories one at a time.
As I began to make my way towards the front door, I heard a low howling bark from the side of the yard. I turned to find what looked like a heeler-mix. He seemed to be guarding the house and continued to bark as any watchdog would. Seeing this unrecognizable dog had made me feel even more like a stranger, even more as if I didn’t belong here. I stared blankly at him as the pathetic howls kept echoing on. Just then, the screen door swung open and my mother stood in amazement to see me. I ran to give her a big hug. In that moment, I finally felt a joy to be home. She hugged me for a good five minutes straight then invited me in for breakfast.
I hadn’t been back in Wilmington for many years now, and had to admit that seeing my mother and revisiting my past for a few days was going to be great. I was there for visiting purposes only and really wanted nothing more to do with that town, though. The people here were warmhearted but everyone knew your business. Everyone tried to keep a clean slate to make sure that their lives weren’t the topic of conversation amongst the community. That is why I figured I needed to get in and get back out.
“I’ve missed you so much, Eddie,” my mother said, “things have been moving rather slowly around here. The Wilmington Courier keeps telling us we are about to see the most rain we’ve seen in ages very soon. We’ll see though. Can’t ever count on much here, that’s for sure.”
That was for sure. Weather was probably the most important piece of news for this town. We sat there for about half an hour while I told her about my hectic life in Chicago and about my experiences in the advertising business. I could see the gleam of interest in her eyes as I spoke about where my life had taken me thus far. It was as if she hadn’t hear something so exciting in a long time. Since my father passed, I knew she had been lonely and could tell that she would be absolutely thrilled with anything I told her. As I rambled on, I began to feel guilt for not having kept better contact with her through the years. I knew I had always been a difficult child and caused her a bunch of grief growing up, always getting into some sort of trouble.
Noon approached. I began to grow more curious about the outcome of this old town and wanted to rekindle a little more from my past. I told my mother I’d be back in time for supper and went on my way. I headed into town towards Barney’s Barber Shop to catch an issue of the Wilmington Courier and to build conversation with some locals. I may even recognize some familiar faces, I thought.
I started off down the road. The sounds and smells of eastern North Carolina brought about a different feeling in me, a feeling that I have not revisited in over a decade. I listened intently as I walked. Every so often a car would pass with a low roar or a dog would bark foolishly at birds flying by. I also heard a distant noise of young children giggling and playing throughout the neighborhood, running in and out of the sides of houses, climbing the old oak trees, and lurking around the wharf without caution. I was there once, I thought.
For an instant, I took it all in. The young, naive feeling arose again and I could almost see myself running aimlessly around these parts with my best buddies, getting into more mischief than a toddler with crayons and a white wall.
Barney’s Barber Shop was just like your classic barber shop. The typical neon “open” sign hung slightly crooked from the glass door. The old-fashioned red and white spiral pole ran up alongside the building and two newspaper stands sat right out front. I popped a quarter into the slot, grabbed the top copy of the Wilmington Courier, and walked in. As the door chimes banged against the glass, all heads turned and looked towards me.
“Good afternoon Sir,” said the voice of an older fellow who was busy trimming a man’s hair, “how may we help you today?”
“Hello, I just thought I’d stop in for some of your fresh coffee and a newspaper, if that’s alright,” I asked.
“Well certainly, take a seat. Make yourself comfortable. What’s your name? Are you from around here?” the old man asked as he swept up loose hair off the floor.
“Yes sir…grew up here. I live in Chicago now and I’m just visiting my mother for a couple of days. My name is Edward Flannigan,” I answered.
At that moment, a man who looked about in his mid-fifties tiled his head down just so he could see above the rim of his eye glasses, as if to get a better look.
“Edward Flannigan!” the man shouted from across the shop, “by golly, look how you’ve grown, son! How is everything going for you?”
I instantly recognized the tone of the voice and that obnoxious grin. It was Mr. Cunningham, a good friend of my father’s who spent a lot of time at our house on Sunday evening when I was younger, usually for coffee or my mother’s homemade vanilla biscottis. I knew I would find some familiar faces that would allow me to get through the days spent back home. I figured we’d talk business or of politics. After conversing about every subject imaginable, Mr. Cunningham picked up a newspaper and read aloud the front headline: “Man Still Searching for Ring after 40 Years”
There may actually be some mystery in this town, I thought. This article became the topic of conversation between the barber shop men for the next half hour. It sounded somewhat interesting to me, so I decided to stay a little longer to hear more. I knew gossip in this town was rare, so I couldn’t pass this up.
“That poor Thomas. He worked like a mad man to make payments for the ring of Mary’s dreams. It’s been missing for decades now. It says here that even after his wife’s death, he will continue to look for that treasure that resembled his love for her,” Mr. Cunningham exclaimed.
“The young man never even got to place it on her finger,” another man uttered.
Certain details from Mr. Cunningham and the article began to spark a bit of memory out of me. I then remember a young, fresh couple of only eighteen years who were married and that lived down the street from me as a child. The names, Thomas and Mary, echoed through my brain for a minute as more and more of it became clear. What a shame, I thought, that something so unfortunate could happen to two good people. Thomas and Mary were very well-known around town and highly respected by their friends. Even as a young married couple forty years back, they were of high importance to Wilmington. The two were very passionate about their involvement and service in the First Baptist Church, the yearly food drive at the market, and their volunteering at Curtsinger Elementary School for things such as field trips and educational outings. They had contributed a lot to our community and so I knew the town would go to great lengths to make sure this mystery was solved for Thomas.
“Suppose someone stole it?” I asked as I sipped the last bit of my coffee.
More chatter started up. They were roaring on and on like a bunch of wild animals, throwing ideas out left and right and discussing this matter which was so destructible to Thomas and this whole town. I couldn’t imagine who could have done such an awful deed. Wilmington wasn’t like any other town. People knew people and everyone was loyal to one another. Whoever is guilty of this should never show their face here again, I thought to myself.
On that note, I stood and walked to the door, bid them all a good day, and started back towards home. My mother would most likely be preparing supper and expecting me to return soon.
The sky grew darker. In the distance I could see the building gusts of winds gradually splashing the water up on the dock as a flock of birds flew overhead, signaling that the storm this town was raging about was on its way. The autumn leaves rustled across the ground scattering spontaneously like mice around a garbage dump. The somber clouds hung heavily over me looking as if they were about to release a waterfall. My clothes suddenly felt extremely uncomfortable and sticky due to the unbearable humidity that took over the air. A feeling of composure and collectedness drew over me as I picked up on the familiar scent of the dry earth about to be damp with rain. It was a chalky aroma that only lasted during the prior minutes before the rain fell. I loved this smell. Just then, intervals of thunder exploded, gaining strength and volume as they continued. Knowing the rain would catch up to me in any moment, I picked up speed.
As I turned the corner onto my street, I noticed a swarm of news crew or possibly reporters standing out front of what I vaguely remember being Mr. Thomas’ and Mrs. Mary’s home. Some of them held notebooks and others mouthpieces and microphones. A camera man also appeared from the front porch of the house. I saw about four of them pull out black umbrellas that had KWIL-TV printed on them and preparing to pack up before they were ambushed by the storm. I then spotted Thomas standing near his front door answering questions form the KWIL-TV crew, looking exhausted. He hardly looked like the same neighbor I knew and remembered as a young boy. I had to imagine that the death of his wife, and losing something of such value, definitely had to take a toll on his aging process. That ring was the only real memory he would have of her, I thought.
I continued on about six more houses down till I reach my home. There lay the mangy mutt next to the willow tree, which now appeared to be dancing wildly with the wind. He was lounged out comfortably sniffing the air with his greasy, black nose.
“You stupid dog,” I murmured to myself, “don’t ya know it’s about to rain?”
It was almost as if he understood me and stood up immediately, making his low howling noises. I ignored his pitiful excuse for a bark and walked in the front door. The instant warm smell of a home-cooked meal lingered in my nostrils. Cornbread, I thought. That most definitely had to be cornbread.
“Eddie, dear, is that you?” my mother hollered from the kitchen.
“Yes, mom. It smells great. What’s for supper?” I asked.
“Roast and potatoes, with your favorite, cornbread. Don’tcha know I would cook my boy his favorite meal while he was home?” she said with a warm smile.
“Thanks mom,” I said and grabbed a china plate from the top cupboard.
As we sat down for supper, the steam from my roast fogging up my eyes, I couldn’t help but think about Mr. Thomas. THe symbol of his devotion for the only woman he had ever loved vanished a long time ago, and he was still bound-determined to find that precious ring. I was starving and would normally tear into my food like a lion to its prey. Instead, I lightly poked my potatoes and crumbled my cornbread with my fork because I was still concerned with the town’s dilemma. My mother stared at me fixedly while pouring her start fruit spiced tea into her mug. She reached across the table and grabbed a copy of the Wilmington Courier that was folder to where Mr. Thomas’ story was face up.
“Just breaks my heart. Who could have possibly had the nerve to steal from such great people?” my mother asked.
I would have never thought I would come home to such a story in Wilmington. It was a relief to know that I would be leaving soon, back to my everyday life in Chicago, without any ties to my old hometown.
We sat there long after we had finished our supper, sharing stories and catching up on lost time. My mother told me numerous stories of my youth and all the trouble I used to get myself into. I was that one kid in the neighborhood that everyone knew about, that everyone despised. My mother told me how she and my dad would call my best friend, Nate, and I the “double trouble twins” because we had a different scheme every day. These were memories that had already faded in my mind.
The thunder popped loudly outside and the rain hit the top of the roof like coins dropping into a stainless steel pan. It splashed against the kitchen window causing the scenery through it of the backyard to be blurred. Suddenly, a lightning bolt lit up the small scene that was bordered by the yellow, wooden window frame. A large oak tree appeared in the burst of light. It was beautiful, as if the season of fall had reached out and kissed it. I saw leaves of red, orange, and some brown. A wooden swing hung from one of its thickest branches flying back and forth in the gusts. I continued to stare at its splendor as the earth quenched its thirst. My mother caught my stare right away.
“Ya know, that very tree meant a lot to you when you were little, son,” she said. “You spent almost every waking hour out there with Nate, always swinging or jumping off them branches. You nearly scared us all half to death. You were always sneaking stuff out there, too. Little knick-knacks here and there.”
My memory of this became lucid and I turned again to stare at the tree. There really was something familiar and significant about that very spot. I began to loosely remember my time spent there with my best friend. I sat wondering for another five minutes, relating my childhood back to this very location. My mother got up from the table and started the dishes. The rain lightened up on the top of the roof and settled slowly. All that remained was a calming thunder that reverberated through the house. I wanted to go check out this place place of my past and try to recollect a little more on my life growing up here. As I started heading towards the back door, I heard a reporter’s voice from the television in the living room speaking of the case of Mr. Thomas’ long lost ring.
“I’ll be back in a minute, mom. I’m just gonna get a little fresh air,” I lied as I walked out the back door.
Tiny sprinkles of rain still hit the top of my head outside. I made my way to the side of the house and finally saw it. There it was, so familiar, yet so strange to me at the same time. I swept the water puddles off the top of the swing and sat down. I allowed myself to swing slowly back and forth as the excess rain from the tree fell in droplets on my head, eventually dampening my clothes. I sat there for another ten minutes, enjoying the calmness of it all, when suddenly the same crazy dog ran from around the side of the house over near my feet on a little mound of dirt. He sat there for a moment, without barking for once, and pushed his nose to the earth. He did this several times and then looked back up at me every time.
“What is it, boy? Why don’t you go on home?” I said.
He continued to nudge the ground with his nose and then ran away quickly. I was curious as to what this strange dog had in mind. I pushed the soggy mud around with my shoe until something caught my eye, There, right in front of the tip of my shoe, was somewhat of a rusty marker with three small stars on it, which looked as if it were there to symbolize something. I reached down and grabbed it out of the ground to get a closer look and found that the stake was molded like an arrow.
“Wait a second…” I whispered to myself.
My curiosity grew and I remembered the very significance of this spot. I went into my father’s old woodshed, grabbed a shovel, and prodded at the earth as if I had struck gold. After about two feet deep, my shovel his something hard, making a dinging sound.
“My treasure box!” I exclaimed with excitement.
I quickly pulled it out. Inside I found little pieces of my childhood that reminded me of all the days Nate and I spent getting into trouble. I found many items of my fathers that we had stole from his dresser: a gold money clip, an old cologne bottle, and one of his old special navy notepads. I also found pictures and letters and other things that appeared to be stolen because they had no belonged to either of my parents. As I kept digging through the old paraphernalia and laughing at its content, my fingers ran across something small and hard. A tiny bit of sunlight peaked through a rain cloud and hit directly on the object, causing it to send a great glare into my eyes. Right then, I reached in to grab the item from the bottom of the box to reveal its identity. I froze. My heart stopped beating for a split second and the box fell out of my hands. I stood there, drenched now, without feeling and without words. There, in my hands, was a ring. But not just any ring, Mr. Thomas’ ring. It fit the article’s description perfectly. Its exuberance and value sparkled as if it was just freshly cut. Its petite size fit comfortable in the palm of my right hand. I couldn’t breathe, nor could I move a muscle.
Seconds later, I heard the back door swing open.
“Eddie, dear, Mr. Thomas heard you were in town. He is in the living room. Come visit for awhile,” she shouted across the yard.
I felt my blood run cold. My brain and thoughts were racing. I threw the ring back into the hole, kicked the mud back over, and walked quickly towards the house.
“I’ll be right there, mom!” I shouted back.