The Union by Isabella Back

Sara filled the air with a pitiful cry, from somewhere deep inside her chest, that even made her daddy misty-eyed. She clutched her yellow dog, Milly, around the neck, refusing to let go, and, when Daddy put his hands on her shoulder, she tightened her embrace. Milly’s body was cold, despite the warm sun, and, though her eyes were open, they were cloudy and unseeing.

Daddy looked troubled and her sister, Francis, was crying too, but her tears were soft and her crying muted. She was older and understood death a little better than her sister did.

“Wh-y-y-y!” Sara cried, tears wetting Milly’s fur as she buried her face in her side.

“Now Sara, these things happen, alright?” His words were of little comfort to his daughter. She tried to quit crying but the tears racked her body even harder. Daddy was a stern man and she didn’t want to upset him.

Lois, the girls’ mother, called out from the kitchen. Daddy looked at his daughters and sighed. He opened the screen door and walked inside to his wife. Francis moved closer to her sister, bent down, and rubbed Milly’s ear in between two fingers, the way she had always liked before.

“These things don’t just happen, you know,” Francis whispered, leaning over her shoulder.

Sara hiccupped, struggling to catch her breath, and looked up at her older sister. Her eyes held a gleam, like she knew something Sara didn’t – a sort of importance.

“Somebody poisoned Milly,” Francis said.

Sara didn’t quite understand the sentiment. Her eight-year-old brain couldn’t quite comprehend why someone would poison her playful, fluffy Milly. She stared up at her sister, waiting for some clarification.

“They poisoned her because Daddy isn’t in the Union,” she said matter-of-factly.

The Union. The word passed through Sara’s ears with an air of distant and platonic familiarity. Her father and her mother and even the television had mentioned The Union before, though it was one of those things Sara had come to accept as something adults talked about when her curious questions were met with complicated answers.

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Her crying subsided for a moment as she thought about her sister’s proclamation. “Why?” was all she could muster.

Francis looked down at Milly. “Because they want Daddy to be in The Union and he’s not.”

Daddy came back outside with a heavy shovel, and, understanding what he meant to do, Sara cried once again.

“Francis, why don’t you take your sister inside?”

“No, please, Daddy.” She racked her brain for reasons to stay outside with Milly. The thought of going inside to her mother made her stomach hurt. “Let me go pick flowers for her, please. I want her to be buried with flowers.”

Daddy looked deeply troubled by this request. “Only if Francis goes with you and you stay in the yard. You hear?”

There was something strained about Daddy’s voice and he had a look in his eyes that Sara had never seen before.

Sara nodded through teary eyes and rubbed her scuffed, grass-covered knees. She felt the need to run away and not come back for a long time and, when she returned, she would find Milly waiting for her, tail wagging and eyes bright.

Summers were long and hot in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and Daddy was always working at the mines. Milly had been a quiet friend that sat in the shade with her in the mornings when she got lonely. The thought of that loneliness made Sara increasingly upset once again. Her eyes were swollen and her cheeks felt hot. Francis was older and she didn’t want to play with Sara anymore. Instead, her sister’s days were spent in the kitchen helping Mama and learning how to cook.

Francis was far behind her now as Sara made her way behind the house to the garden flowers that grew along the fence. They were small white flowers that wrinkled when Sara tried to pluck them from their stems. Her sadness quickly turned into frustration, and she hung her head over the fence.

“These flowers are ugly,” Sara said.

Francis sat a little ways off in the shade and looked at the ground, kicking at the dust with her foot. Seizing the opportunity, Sara clambered over the short fence and landed into the next yard. She knew this yard from many days spent peering over their hedges. Towering, ruby red rose bushes surrounded the lattice wall on the side facing Sara’s home. The flowers were beautiful and collected big dew drops in the morning.

She waited for the sound of Francis calling her, but a minute passed and her sister was nowhere to be seen. With a sigh, Sara made her way through the yard and towards the roses that dappled the ground with their shadows.

The fresh, earthy floral scent filled her nose. The smell enchanted her and she picked a couple of roses and held them gently, careful to not crumple the petals.

Sara turned around, flowers in hand, then stopped immediately in her tracks. A man stood a couple of yards away from her. He was tall and lanky with a black mustache, and wore the same black uniform with the orange, reflective stripes that Daddy wore. He stared at her for a moment and raised a hand to greet her.

She gave him a faint smile and a little wave. His eyes seemed listless and sad. Sara felt like she recognized this man. She felt a tinge of fear at being caught taking the flowers, but surely, she thought, once she explained her situation he would understand.

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Before she could say anything, though, Daddy was over the fence and dragging her back through the yard by the arm. She cried out in pain and dropped the roses onto the ground. Beautiful red petals scattered and were crushed under their feet. Daddy’s eyes shone fiercely and she began to cry quietly. She watched as the man dropped his hand. He looked utterly guilty, like Francis had the day she knocked Momma’s sewing machine off the table. He wouldn’t meet Sara’s gaze, even though she looked at him until they crossed back over the fence. Daddy didn’t say anything to him either.

 

***

 

That night, the girls pressed their ears against the wall they shared with their parents’ bedroom. If they were really quiet they could hear the pained whispers of their parents as they discussed The Union.

“I’m so scared,” their mother whispered. “What are they going to do next?”

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“I can’t do anything about it, Lois. I can’t be out of work. They’re paying me three times as much as some of those boys so I won’t go union.”

“What’s gonna happen when you cross that picket line Monday and one of them shoots you dead? All that money’s gonna be real useful when you’re dead.” Momma began quiet, racking sobs.

“Damn it, Lois! I’m doing everything I can for this family. You just want us to starve? You wanna go stand in the cheese line?”

Sara wept quietly and she let her head rest in her hands. Her usually gentle, quiet father was scaring her. Francis put a hand over her sister’s mouth as she strained to listen. Sara didn’t listen anymore though. She pulled away from her sister and curled up on her cot in the floor and willed herself to sleep. She dreamed of a man with flowers for eyes feeding Milly poison and her father dragging his shovel through the gravel.

***

 

Sara paid more attention to the TV after that day. The picket lines and the people shouting at her through the screen gave her this anxious feeling she couldn’t escape, but not watching what was happening made it worse. A feeling of dread weighed her down every time her father laced up his boots and walked out the door. She had begged him on multiple occasions not to leave again, but he always just held her hand and smiled at her before, once again, walking out the door and shutting the screen behind him. It spawned a feeling of betrayal that marked her heart and made her angry. She was angry at her father for putting himself in harm’s way, for not being in The Union, for knocking the flowers out of her hands, and for Milly’s death.

She walked outside and sat under the apple trees by herself after her chores were done. She picked at the grass with her hands as the hot summer sun fell behind the mountains; and she imagined the man who had stood in the yard over the fence. She looked at the fence and envisioned herself peering over the top. Her father forbade her to do this, and, for that matter, to go out of the yard at all. He was never around to enforce his rules, though, so sometimes she snuck down to the creek across the road to hunt for crawdads when she was really bored.

She thought about the man who lived over the fence and his sad eyes, so icy blue in the morning light, and how her father had not said hello to him. The roses that were meant for Milly were, by now, crumpled and wilted. Anger bubbled up in her once again at the thought of not being able to visit Milly’s grave. Daddy had buried her up on the hill above the creek, and she had only snuck out to see it once.

She longed to go there now. She wondered if there were any more flowers she could take up there. Daddy was inside watching TV and Momma and Francis were still cleaning up from dinner. Maybe she could take a little peek. No one would know. Sara crept over to the fence and lifted her head over the wooden posts, just barely enough to see what was on the other side.

At once, a bright red object came hurtling at her and she slid down with a squeal. A rubber ball bounced off the fence posts with a loud thump. Sara huddled at the base of the fence post, unsure of what just happened, until she got up the nerve to once again peer over. The man was there, and two kids as well. A boy in a striped shirt and overalls looked to be about Sara’s age, and a girl, dressed in a blue shirt and skirt, looked a little younger. The man’s eyes were no longer cold or sad – but were, instead, bright and full of laughter as he rolled the ball across the ground for them to kick. The little girl giggled in delight as he sent the ball her way.

Image from Snappygoat

Sara watched them for a few moments, noticing how happy they all looked. She adjusted her head to rest on her arm and caught the man’s eye. He looked directly at her. In those few moments, he clamped his jaw shut and became the man she had seen a few mornings ago. Sara ducked down under the fence. She picked at the post’s chipped wood and a great sadness came over her, though she did not know why.

Fireflies flickered across the tops of the wet grass as she walked back to the house. It was warm and the air hung thick with the moisture of an approaching storm. Even the leaves on the Catalpa trees were curled up, as though they were preparing for an onslaught of rain and wind.

Inside, the TV glowed in the dark living room. “Reports of riots have broken out among the picket lines, and two workers were injured this evening while crossing the lines. It is said that the governor will be making a statement later today-”

Daddy stared at the TV, leaning forward in his chair with his hands propped at his temples. Momma handed a dried plate to Francis as they both nervously listened to the anchorman’s droning voice. They didn’t seem to notice as Sara stepped inside and made her way down the hallway and into her room.

A buzz of fear and anxiety blended with the claps of thunder and flashes of lightning outside. The summer storm blew wet leaves against the girls’ window and scratched branches across the side of the house.

Image from Snappygoat

It was past eleven o’clock but Daddy was still up with Momma, and Sara could faintly hear them pacing the floor, speaking in hushed, anxious voices. The TV channels cut out as soon as the wind picked up, but she still heard the crackling static. Her heart pounded and she wanted nothing more than to curl up in her father’s arms.

Sara slowly rose from her bed, stepped onto the floor, and crawled over to the door to listen. Francis rolled over and continued sleeping.

“Jamie’s wife said they’re going to come down the road with guns. They’re gonna shoot into the houses they know ain’t Union.”

Momma was crying, soft and pitiful. Seeing this made Sara start to cry, too. Then her father’s voice rose in anger.

“To hell they will! I’ll put a bullet in each of their goddam heads. First they kill my damn dog, now they think they’re gonna shoot at my house? I’ll shoot them all dead!”

Momma cried out now, her sobs loud enough to hear without Sara pressing her ear to the door. Her parents’ closet door opened and a shotgun’s pump action clinked loud and clear, then the screen door clacked closed with a bang.

Francis was awake now but Sara was too scared to sit in their room anymore. She ran into the living room to her mother, grabbing onto her dress. Momma was sobbing and bent down to hug Sara. Francis stood in the doorway, soft tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Where’s Daddy?” Sara sobbed, tears wetting Momma’s dress as she buried her face in the linen folds.

“You can’t see him right now, okay? Just be quiet, please, baby.”

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“Lois, put the girls in the closet!” Daddy yelled.

Momma hurried them into the closet, closed the slat door, and stood with her back to it. Ominous voices gathered outside and wet gravel crunched underneath slow-rolling cars as they approached. A crack of thunder whipped through the air and a metallic tang like pennies filled Sara’s mouth. The fear was overwhelming and she clutched tighter to her sister.

The house was illuminated for a moment, and, through the cracks, she saw the window. The curtains were drawn back so Momma could look outside. Daddy stood on the porch with his shotgun in his hand as the rain and wind whipped his shirt tail back and forth.

Sara wished desperately that Milly was there, and, in her irrationality, that the man with blue eyes were there, too. He was not a bad person, Sara decided, not like the people who were outside. The blue-eyed man played kickball with his family, like Daddy did on his days off in the summer. The blue-eyed man would help them if he knew they were in trouble.

Momma cried out and clutched her hand tight to her chest. Sara strained to see out of the slats in the door but could not tell what had made her mother jump. The porch steps creaked with the sound of boots. Her father’s voice called out.

“Police are coming, Wade! Ya’ll better leave before something bad happens.”

“What are you gonna do before they get here?”

The increasingly aggressive voices of the men outside were drowned out by an increase in the downpour. The drops bouncing off the tin roof made the storm sound monstrous. The wind made the house creak and groan.

The seconds felt like hours until the sound of a gunshot rang through the air and the whole world seemed to stop for a moment, caving in on itself. Sara no longer heard the rain, just the sound of her mother’s knees hitting the floor.

Sara tried to breathe in but the air caught in the back of her throat and she felt as though she would suffocate.

Seconds passed. Then a minute. The storm reached its peak, lashing the windows with sideways rain. Her mother’s keening wail sounded otherworldly. Francis shook the doorknob, furiously beating at the slats with her other fist.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The front door opened and a man carried her father inside. She recognized his eyes as he looked down at her father, whom he laid onto the floor.

Red and blue lights flashed through the window. The storm calmed.

 

**Featured Image by Image by LysogSalt on Pixabay

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