Welcome to Wednesday Fiction’s third story, I Was Born For the Stage. I’m very excited to present this one to you, as I’ve been having a lot of fun creating it and like all of the characters involved in this tale (even the puppy). It’s no exaggeration to say that this story has written itself, with Elsbeth leading the way. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Elsbeth groaned as her father reined in their horses, bringing their rickety wagon to a halting stop. “Oh, must we stop here?”
Her father raised his eyebrows as he tied the reins to the mast just inside the wagon. “Do you wish to continue to eat?”
She rubbed her small belly and glanced back at their puppy, Eustice. The small brown-and-white dog insisted on riding beside Elsbeth, even if it meant that the hot late-day sun warmed his body. Sensing her eyes upon him, he raised his head and thumped his tail on the wagon’s wooden floor.
She smiled at the puppy. “I should think so. I think Eustice would like it as well. Wouldn’t you?” She lapsed into the dirty Western affectation of her father’s accent on the last sentence. The 11-year-old worked hard to keep her accent in check; her mother had told her that learning her own cultured Eastern accent would get her far in the world. Unfortunately, she found her father’s accent so much more pleasing to the ear.
Her father climbed down, his joints popping in time to the wagon’s pops. After a ponderous climb he touched the dusty red street and turned, cocking his head and smiling. “Well, then. We have but four tins of beans. It will hardly be enough for the journey ahead.”
Elsbeth sighed and climbed down from the cart. The puppy bounced out of the wagon behind her, hopping to the street in one bound. He turned and looked at her as she descended, tail thumping the ground.
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Showoff.”
Eustice barked, and she laughed. She looked to her father as she reached the street. “How much longer must we ride?”
Her father put his hands on his back and leaned away from her; loud snaps and cracks followed the motion, riding up his spine. “I’d expect another two weeks,” he said, and twisted this way, then that, studying the empty street. “We must get across the Salt Plains as quickly as possible. You know what that means.”
She knew, all right. No food, no water, and the constant threat of Plague Muties. She’d have to take the reins at times, as any extended stop would be out of the question. Not that it would be the first time; she had driven the horses through the dead of night on more than one occasion. “Why can’t we just conjure up food? Surely it can’t be that difficult.”
He patted one of the horses’ heads and walked toward the General Store. “We’ve talked about this a hundred times, Elsbeth.”
She followed him. “And I’ll ask you a hundred times more.”
“Magic shouldn’t be used for selfish means,” he said.
“I don’t understand how this is selfish. If we keep ourselves alive, we can help more people.” Not everyone could use magic, after all. The thought of using a good healing spell on some of these people…
Did healing spells save Mother? A voice whispered in her ear. She had no answer for that one.
Her father stopped and looked to her, scowling. She took a step back, her eyes wide, concerned that she had finally pushed him too far. The look in her eyes must have jarred him, for he shook his head, smiled, and ruffled her hair.
“You’re a little too much like your mother, lass. Please, trust me when I say that we just can’t. If I could, I would feed this whole town.” He waved his arms, indicating the few remaining homes on the street, the General Store, and the angular building on the other side of the street. “Not there are that many people to help,” he muttered, and turned back to the General Store.
The building across the street caught Elsbeth’s eye, and she paused to study it. Something about the angular building seemed familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. She found it all the more curious that it stood alone on that side of the street, everything around it seemingly destroyed by dust storm or fire. She didn’t know how that could happen.
She looked back to her father and found him a few steps ahead. She ran to catch up, but he stopped her with a finger.
“You should wait out here,” he said.
“But I want to see if they have any cards.”
“Do you think we have the money to spare for something like that?” he said.
She put her hands on her hips. “I want to know our future.”
“You can use your mother’s cards.”
Her father’s tone suggested that there would be no argument about this, but Elsbeth hated the very idea of using her mother’s cards. Every time she touched them she remembered what they had lost in the early days of the Plague, and her heart ached all over. “Daddy…”
She knew the words to get what she wanted, but they wouldn’t work this time. “I know, but we have better uses for our money. Besides, she wanted you to have them when you were old enough.”
“Am I old enough?”
“Close enough. She began her own works at the age of 12.” He knelt down, offering Eustice his hand. “I don’t think they’ll allow the dog in, and I don’t want to run the risk of him running off again.”
She reached for the dog’s collar and pulled him back. “He won’t run off.”
Her father rose, pulling a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiping at the grime on his face. “Won’t he now? Have you already forgotten Antibula?”
She couldn’t meet his eyes. Of course she hadn’t forgotten. Losing the puppy had nearly destroyed her. If the cards reminded her of what she’d lost, the puppy reminded her of what she could still have, and she couldn’t let that go again. “I won’t let him get away,” she said.
“I know you won’t.” He put the handkerchief away. “That’s why I trust you with him. I’ll only be a few minutes, now there’s a good lass.”
She sighed and climbed up onto the General Store’s wooden porch, sitting cross-legged on it. “If you see some candy, could you bring it?” she said, refusing to look at her father.
She could hear the humor in his voice. “I’ll see what I can manage. No promises.”
“Of course I know no promises.”
He grunted and left her, disappearing through the General Store’s swinging doors.
“Stupid trip. Stupid town,” she said to the puppy as she scratched his chin. Her father had never asked whether she wanted to go to Auntie Kyp’s house; he had just told her it would be best, and no arguments brooked.
Eustice barked and she released him, pushing his butt down onto the porch. “You stay here,” she said. He sat next to her, thumping his tail, as she studied the dirt beneath her feet.
She had a long-standing interest in the things beneath her feet – rocks, dirt, and grass especially – keeping a log of her findings in a worn old journal that her mother had given her on her 10th birthday. She wished she had it at that moment as the red dirt in this town (she still had no idea what to call the place) fascinated her.
She began to dig, knowing that her father would be upset about the filth under her nails but not really caring.
She had never seen pure red dirt before. Oh, sure, she had seen the orange-red stuff farther west, and had sifted through her share of red clay, but the dark crimson of this dirt put all others to shame. The sight of it on her pale palms fascinated her. She lifted it to her nose and sniffed, but found it oddly scentless. She cocked her head and let it run between her hands, gauging its moisture, or the lack thereof.
Remember this, she thought, and glanced back down, ready to pick up another handful. She paused when she saw a hint of bright blue buried beneath all that red. Intrigued, she leaned forward and pushed one finger into the dirt, pressing against the blue thing.
It gave, but only a little. She dug deeper into the dirt and tugged at it, revealing a thin, lean cord.
She had no idea why the townspeople might have buried a cord under their street, but it fascinated her. What did it hide? She pulled at it, trying to dig it out. It gave after a moment’s struggle, kicking up a rivulet of dirt and dust ahead of it. She saw now that it had been buried shallow and seemed to run for quite some distance toward the building on the other side of the street.
She stood up and pulled at the cord, trailing it as she crossed the street, her mind focused on the task at hand.
Focused, that is, until Eustice gave a few yips from somewhere off to her right. She looked up and her heart leaped into her throat when she saw the puppy heading for the building across the street – more specifically, its open door.
Oh, no. Father would kill her.
You can read Part 2 of “I Was Born For the Stage” here.