Independence Day

Independence Day part I

Independence Day part II

We did the best we could to make life normal after that day. Whatever that normal is. I now believe ‘normal’ is our modern El Dorado. People drive themselves crazy seeking after it. But grandma, Thomas and I did our best.   For different reasons, we didn’t talk about mama and papa much. We each held a secret. Perhaps we should have just shared what we knew with each other and let the healing and forgiveness begin. But we didn’t. We each held onto our secret as if it was our lifeline. Why does hindsight have to be so much clearer than foresight?

In those four years, I gave up being a tomboy and became interested in boys in a different way. And boys became interested in me. At least one did. One just like papa. I followed in mama’s footsteps and married before I finished school. Just like mama, I had to plan an escape years later. Unlike mama though, I succeeded.

Thomas started to run. He joined track in school and spent hours running in the hills surrounding grandma’s house. I asked him one time why he ran so much. He shrugged it off and replied, “I have nothing better to do.” To this day I don’t know if he was trying to run to something or run away from something. But his running allowed him to receive a scholarship and he was able to go to school where he became top in his class.

Mama always knew he was destined for better things than this town had to offer. That’s one reason she was so insistent on calling him Thomas instead of shortening it to Tommy. She named him an old man’s name and she wanted him to live up to it. Most people didn’t understand and would call him Tommy. But I agreed with mama. He had been born with an old man’s soul and Thomas seemed to fit him much better.

On July 3rd that year we walked home from town. Grandma was getting older and finding it harder to make the trip to town as often. Besides, it gave me a chance to visit my boyfriend and it gave Thomas a chance to be in town with other people. He thrived on social situations and loved to observe interactions between people. Rarely did he join in, he just liked to watch.

As soon as we turned onto the long drive to walk up to the house we saw a beat up old truck parked by the old barn. “Grandma has company?” it came out as a question.

“Looks like it,” Thomas replied and looked at me. “Who would be coming to visit grandma?”

I shrugged my shoulders and we quickened our pace to find out.

As soon as we approached the house a man in overalls stepped onto the porch.

“Papa?” I stopped in my tracks.

He looked at me then started to laugh. “No, I’m your Uncle Levi, remember?”

I didn’t but I nodded my head slowly anyway.

“Hello Tara,” he smiled and revealed his crooked, rotting teeth. “Hello Tommy.”

Thomas stepped back. “I go by Thomas.” Most people in town called him Tommy. I never heard him correct anyone before.

Uncle Levi licked his lips. “You sound like your mama,” he said and didn’t try to hide the contempt in his voice.

“Your Uncle Levi has come to spend time with you,” Grandma interrupted and stepped onto the porch behind him while wiping her hands on her apron. She tried to make her voice sound hopeful which gave it an unnatural tone and she did not make eye contact with either of us.

“How about us going fishing Saturday?” Uncle Levi asked Thomas.

Thomas looked at grandma then at me. He wanted a savior and neither of us could offer him one.

“You need a male influence in your life, Tommy,” Uncle Levi caught himself and lowered his voice in a mocking tone, “Thomas.”

Thomas knew there was no escape hatch for him. “Fine,” he said looking down at the ground.

For a year, Uncle Levi became part of our lives. At least one Saturday a month he sauntered into town and took Thomas fishing or some other manly excursion. The next day he’d sleep for most of the time then wake up in time to enjoy Sunday dinner with us. Then he’d disappear. I have no idea where he went or what he did when he wasn’t with us. But he made contact with us at least once a month.   It was probably the most reliable thing he ever did in his life.

A couple of times I caught him leering at me. Thankfully, grandma never let us be alone in a room together. She always made sure she was in there.   But she couldn’t do the same for Thomas and I think that year aged her quicker than normal.

The summer before I started my senior year in high school, I had plans to spend the 4th of July with my boyfriend. “Your uncle wants to take you both tonight,” grandma told us that morning while we ate breakfast.

“What for?” I asked putting my breakfast dishes in the sink.

Grandma looked down, her voice became shaky, “He wants to ask you…” Quickly she walked out of the room. “I better start on those clothes.”

My eyebrows raised. “What’s with her?”

Thomas was too busy studying his breakfast to hear me. “I’m going running.” He said standing up and putting his dishes in the sink.

“But you haven’t eaten your breakfast,” I said.

“Not hungry,” he replied and bounded out the door.

He didn’t return until late that afternoon. I was in the barn looking for camping gear. We called it the barn but it was really an oversized shed that was slowly falling apart. It was drafty and I had to use a kerosene lamp to see inside.

“Hi,” Thomas said causing me to jump.

“Oh, why are you so quiet?” I complained. “You’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”

He shrugged his shoulders and hopped onto an old counter. The whole building seemed to lean a bit with his weight.

“Be careful,” I said looking around. “I do not want this building to fall in on me. Especially with this lamp burning.”

“What are you even doing in here?” he asked smiling.

“Looking for camping gear. Uncle Levi wants to take us camping,” I rolled my eyes.

He did not move and his eyes became big. “What?”

“He wants to take us camping. Even I have to go this time. I don’t know why. I’m seventeen. I think I’m old enough to have some say in the matter.”

Thomas looked down at his feet. “I’m not going,” he said defiantly.

“You like to camp,” I said. “You’ve been going all year with him.”

He shook his head and swallowed hard.

“I know he is a boor and I don’t like to spend time with him but I thought you two got along alright,” I studied Thomas.

He shook his head again and clenched the counter with his hands until they turned white. “He’s going to make us go live with him.”

“What?” I asked.

“That’s what this is about, this trip. I heard grandma and him talking the other day,” he jumped off the counter and looked like he was in flight mode. “I am not going to live with that man,” his face softened. “I can’t.”

“What have you done on your outings?” I asked even though I already knew. I suppose I always knew I just didn’t want to think about it.

He looked away and my suspicions were confirmed.

“You wait here,” I said.

He grabbed my arm. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”

“I’ll tell him you’re sick and I’ll think of something for me. We’ll stay home this weekend. If we have time to talk to grandma about this she can help,” after all, she tried to help us before.

I walked out of the barn and headed to the house. My mind raced with possible excuses. Before I turned the corner I stopped when I heard voices. Uncle Levi and grandma were on the porch talking.

“He needs a man’s influence, ma,” he slurred loudly.

“They’re both happy here,” grandma pleaded.

“The decision is final. You have no say in this matter. It’s your fault and that woman’s,” he said with as much contempt as he could muster, “that boy is so soft.   He’s an embarrassment to this family.” I still felt anger toward mama, but I didn’t like the way he referred to her with so much disdain.

“But I’m getting old. I need their help,” I could tell she was grasping at straws trying anything.

“He is going to learn to be a man,” his voice boomed and I hoped Thomas couldn’t hear any of this.

“And what about her?” grandma asked. I forgot I was part of this deal. “We’ll need someone to do the woman chores. Cooking, cleaning,” his voice softened just a little.

A maid? He wanted me to be his maid.

“Women need to learn their place, too. Why is she wasting time in school anyway?”

“No, Levi,” I had never heard grandma sound so vulnerable before. “Please, don’t do this.”

Uncle Levi lost his patience. I heard his heavy steps stomp. “I don’t care what you think, woman.” His voice was filled with venom and my whole body tightened.

“Levi, please,” grandma sounded like a little girl.

Then I heard that familiar sound. The same sound Thomas and I heard over and over again. I knew what was happening. Even though I wanted to help grandma I knew I couldn’t at the moment. But I could still help Thomas.

I ran back to the barn and went straight for grandpa’s old gun cabinet. I pulled out the first rifle and forced my shaking hands to stuff a bullet into it.

Thomas looked at me wide eyed.

I cocked the gun then turned to him. “Run.”

He stood there.

I grabbed his arm and led him to the door. “Run and don’t turn back. Go on.”

He shook his head.

“RUN!” I commanded. “Get out of here, now!”

Finally, he backed up and started running toward the hills.

I took a deep breath and nodded. Outside offered no protection for me as I looked around. I decided my best bet would be to wait in the barn. My hands were sweaty but I clenched that rifle like it was my salvation. I backed up to the far wall and waited. He’d come looking and I’d be waiting.

The soft glow of the lamp illuminated just enough of the building for me to see.

It felt like forever before I heard him call out our names.

“In here,” I answered trying to make sure my voice didn’t sound as insecure as I felt.

He opened the door and his eyes scanned the building quickly. I could tell it took a moment for him to adjust to the dim light. “There you are,” he said laughing and stopped short when he noticed the gun. “What is this?”

“Uncle Levi,” I said while holding the gun pointed at him. “I think it’s best you leave.”

He opened the door all the way and I could only see his silhouette. “Girl, I don’t have time for this.”

“Please leave. Leave us alone. Don’t come back,” I said as evenly as possible.

He laughed again. But it was an irritated laugh and I knew I was at the point of no return. He started walking toward me. “You gonna shoot me?” he asked. “Your own kin?”

“Please,” I begged. “Please just leave.”

“No, I’m not gonna leave. And you’re not gonna shoot,” he licked his dry lips and took another step closer. “You are gonna put the gun down and we are gonna go home where you will learn some manners.”

“Please,” I couldn’t help it the tears started to come.

He laughed again and relaxed. Another step closer.

I panicked and squeezed the trigger. The shock of the gun pushed me back into the wall and I hit my head. The next thing I remember, grandma was helping me up and the barn was on fire.

She helped me out of the building to safety. We sat on the ground and watched the building burn with Uncle Levi inside.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You shot your Uncle Levi,” she said. “But don’t you give it a second thought. It was self-defense. You did what you had to do. You protected yourself and your brother.”

“I shot him?” I asked. I remembered the gun going off but didn’t see if I hit him or not.

“You did. You did what you had to do.” She kept repeating it as if to console me.

“What about the fire?” I asked.

“Well, he must have knocked the lamp down when he fell.”

I admit it. I was on the edge of my seat as Tara finished her story. I licked my lips. “So, you killed your Uncle Levi?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if admitting to murder would have an effect on her Citizen of the Year Award. As far as I knew, there had been no precedent in the matter. She was just supposed to be some boring, nice old lady.

“Well,” she said slowly.   I could tell this story was not finished yet. “That is what went into the official police record. But,” she looked at my tape recorder, “if you want to go off the record, I’ll tell you what really happened.”

My eyes followed hers to the tape recorder and I leaned over and turned it off. I set my pen and paper down and just listened.

“I need to back up a little,” she said.

I stood there with gun in hand begging him to just leave. He didn’t listen and kept coming closer and closer. I panicked and squeezed the trigger. The bullet missed him completely and hit the lantern.

The truth is, the kickback did cause me to hit my head and I was knocked unconscious for a moment. When I came to, the barn was on fire and I was lying in a pool of blood.

I sat up quickly and looked at the blood on my hands and felt my body. It wasn’t mine. I looked over and Uncle Levi lay contorted on the ground.

“C’mon,” I heard grandma’s voice in the smoke. Quickly I followed.

We stood there watching the barn burn down with Uncle Levi inside.

“He was going to hurt you,” she said with a weak voice.   “I did what I had to do,” she threw a blunt metal pipe she had been clutching into the fire.

“Grandma?” I asked.

“You’re safe now,” she mumbled.

That day added about twenty years onto grandma and she never quite recovered. None of us did, really.

I dropped out of school around Christmas time to marry my boyfriend. It is one of my biggest regrets mainly because grandma sacrificed everything to keep us safe and I jumped right back into danger.   I left my husband in the middle of the night the day after I turned 29. Luckily, we didn’t have any children.  Of course, he always blamed me for the fact we didn’t have kids but I didn’t have any trouble with my next two husbands.  At any rate, I didn’t have the extra baggage when I fled like mama did.

Thomas received a scholarship and went to school. He was named one of the “Brightest and Best” when he graduated from college. But he couldn’t escape the vices of this family. He was dragged into the bottle just like papa and lost everything by the time he turned thirty. A week before his 32nd birthday I buried him in the town’s cemetery. To his credit, he never started a family. He said he didn’t trust himself and he wanted the cycle to end with him.

Grandma died twelve years after this incident. I was living with her then. She spent a lot of time staring out the window lost in thought. The last few years of her life she indulged in many delusions that involved the men in her life chasing after her.

Tara finished her narrative and sat back in her seat. A semblance of peace rested on her.

“So,” I said collecting my thoughts, “your grandma killed your Uncle Levi with the pipe?”

“Actually, we both killed him in the fire. We could hear him scream when he came to. But, uh, that’s off the record.”

I didn’t know what to say. “Well, uh,” I said nervously. “I think I have enough for the article in the paper. Congratulations on your award.” There was no way I was going to use any of this.

We walked to the door and I stopped. “You never mentioned your grandpa in the story.”

She opened the door for me. “He died before I was born.”

I narrowed my eyes. “How did he die?”

She looked me in the eyes and replied, “In a fire.”

“That’s an amazing coincidence,” I said the word even though I didn’t believe it.

She took my hand, “Coincidences are for fools.”

I swallowed and left her little home.

Tara Snellfield died a week after the interview and never received her award. Instead of the write up I had planned to do a small one column obituary took its place. I attended her funeral with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That’s the downside to living to be the oldest citizen in town. She outlived her grandma, parents, brother, two ex-husbands, one husband, all her children, a few grandchildren, and even one great-grandchild.

I even went to the cemetery and watched her casket lowered into the ground. On her right, her third husband is buried. On her left is Thomas. “Still watching out for Thomas,” I said and placed some flowers on her headstone.

All of this family’s secrets were finally buried and could be forgotten. Perhaps now, they could find some peace.


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