Terrifying family secrets have plagued Hughie Decker for as long as he can remember. Now, just as his life and career have finally begun to make strides, a seemingly innocent story from his hometown newspaper leaves Decker with no choice. He must return to his boyhood home to confront the horrid truth that destroyed so many lives.
|Publisher:||Page Publishing, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.52(d)|
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The late summer shower lost its battle with the sun as Hughie Decker pulled to the side of the road and rolled down the window of his battered pickup. The smell of damp wheat mingled with the scent of muddy earth, recalling past summers spent sneezing his head off. Despite his father's stubborn insistence that the sneezing was but a temporary affliction, Hughie knew he was allergic to the wheat and dense red soil unique to Milrose County, Nebraska.
The drive from Detroit had been largely uneventful, traffic being surprisingly light, and the hours flew by. Taking I-94 West, Hughie changed to I-80 at Gary, Indiana, continuing west before stopping in Grinnell, Iowa, at the small and nearly deserted Bluebird Motel. Anxious to be on the road the following morning, Hughie graciously declined Mrs. Bishop's kind offer of a hearty breakfast. It wasn't so much that he wouldn't be hungry as the fact that Mr. Bishop, the motel manager, possessed an enormous vocabulary of body language, conveying to Hughie in no uncertain terms that his presence at the breakfast table was unnecessary. Though Bishop smiled and thanked Hughie for his patronage, there was a hard and frugal tone to his voice that mirrored the no-nonsense manner with which he had doled out two blue towels the night before.
"Count 'em, if you would." To which Hughie dutifully complied, finding no fault with Bishop's arithmetic.
"Travelin' far, are you, son?"
"Left Detroit this morning," said Hughie as he signed his name on the registry card below a picture of a bluebird.
"Detroit, huh?" muttered Bishop, seeming to study the part in Hughie's hair.
"Why, that's about six hundred miles away, ain't it?" this from Mrs. Bishop, who had found her way into the office. She said "away" with the same reverence one might reserve for Avalon or Brigadoon.
"Give or take." Hughie smiled, passing the card across the counter.
Mrs. Bishop leaned on her elbows, cradling her chin in upturned hands as she searched Hughie's eyes. "Where you headed?"
"Nebraska, 'course most of my journey's behind me. In miles, anyway," Hughie added, to himself.
Mrs. Bishop continued, "Well, in the morning, before you leave, how would a little breakfast sound?"
Hughie was momentarily taken aback by the woman's unblinking stare and what seemed a desperate generosity. "Gee, ma'am, that's awfully nice —"
Bishop snapped up the registry card and scrutinized it with slightly bulging eyes as if it were a bug specimen. His one eyebrow arched to join his hairline while the other looked about to crash into his cheekbone. "Why, I suppose that mister, uh, Decker, will be anxious to get an early start." Neither the cardboard smile nor the message behind it were lost on Hughie. It only followed that feeding strangers, young males to boot, was hardly an economically prudent, or necessary, gesture. Bishop supported his reasoning with the staunch belief that the Bluebird's clean and quiet rooms were more than adequate compensation for his extremely reasonable rates. To throw in breakfast would be a foolish extravagance.
From obvious indications, it seemed Mrs. Bishop did not often get a chance to entertain. Hughie was cognizant of a faint yet dire loneliness in the woman, who secretly tossed a bag of ham sandwiches onto the front seat the next morning and pressed a steaming mug of coffee into his hand.
"You can return the cup on your way back through." Her eyes trained on his.
Mrs. Bishop stood a moment by the truck door then stepped back, and Hughie started the engine as she meekly waved goodbye.
"Thank you, ma'am. Take care," Hughie said and swung the pickup out onto the road. What had made Mrs. Bishop assume Hughie would come back through town was anyone's guess. Likely wishful thinking on her part. The notion was strangely flattering yet tinged with a loneliness, an incompleteness, that he could well understand. He and Mrs. Bishop were pulled — or pushed — in opposite directions: she to escape the reality of her pathetic future, and he to confront the reality of an unforgiving past. Driving away, he glanced through his rearview mirror and saw a gust of dusty wind push against the hem of Mrs. Bishop's faded cotton dress, molding it around her legs as if to propel her toward the motel office. She held a delicate hand over her eyes to shield the dust. Mr. Bishop stepped out of the office door and beckoned to his wife. She nodded her compliance and, after a last look at the retreating pickup, walked resignedly inside.
Hughie readjusted the rearview mirror, sweeping away all trace of the Bluebird Motel. He gratefully sipped his coffee and lifted his elbow as the pickup jounced over a set of railroad tracks. After filling up at a gas station run by an old gentleman who wore what looked like an original Texaco uniform, complete with peaked cap and tie, Hughie passed the outskirts of town and soon rejoined I-80 west. Gobbling down a sandwich, he continued west nonstop to North Platte, Nebraska, where he exited I-80 to veer north on U.S. 83. At the junction of State Road 9 he turned left and was carried onto the familiar macadam. Black snakes of asphalt slithered and crisscrossed the gently curving ribbon of gray that dissected the undulating fields of wheat, musty smelling after the brief summer shower.
A chorus of grasshoppers swelled to a familiar buzz as Hughie stopped the pickup to stretch his legs. With a stubborn creak, the truck door swung open, and Hughie hobbled a moment on stiff legs, crossing behind the back of the truck. He stretched his arms, and his shoulders popped, sounding much like the creaking hinges of the pickup's door. He kicked a small pile of wet, ruddy soil. The blades of grass by the roadside were lush and sparkled with countless prisms of dewdrops. Bending down to pluck a half-inch-wide blade, he placed it between his thumbs, cupping his hands behind. He blew against the blade's edge, causing a piercing and warbling cry. The poignant sound of the prairie whistle, a sound he had made thousands of times before, now seemed strangely hostile, as it silenced the symphony of grasshoppers. In the seclusion of the moment, Hughie was struck by a deep loneliness and, for an instant, half expected to hear his brother's grass whistle in reply.
He stood rooted for a time then parted his thumbs and let the breeze peel away the green blade. All was quiet but for the whisper of the wind as it rustled the tall yellow stalks. Turning back toward the truck, he halted in his tracks. Was that an echo he heard? He dismissed it as imaginary and then heard the warbled cry a second time, this time louder, insistent. Hughie looked up into patches of brilliant blue sky and spotted a red hawk cascading in gentle circles. When it called a third time, Hughie raised his hand in acknowledgment then let go with such a thunderous sneeze he almost lost his balance. At a loss for a fitting response, the hawk ventured off to seek conversation elsewhere. Hughie shrugged his shoulders, kicked the caked mud from his shoes, and headed back to climb behind the wheel, his face breaking into a wry grin. "That sneezin's all in your head, boy," his father used to say. His father's diagnosis was merely an attempt to convince Hughie that he could stop sneezing if he really tried. Like Hughie wanted to spend every spring, summer, and fall sneezing. "You can stop it, son. Just put your mind to it!"
It was pointless for Hughie to explain to his father that his mind had nothing to do with it, that the sneezing was an allergic reaction beyond his control. His father was a stubborn man and did not appreciate being contradicted by anyone, let alone one of his sons. Fact was, the sneezing was in his head, just as his father had declared, and so discretion, and a little fear, told Hughie not to split hairs with the man. "I know, Dad. Sorry. I'll try" was all he could say. But nothing then, or now, stopped the familiar tickle that began between his eyebrows and move resolutely downward. Another sneeze erupted in a gargantuan explosion.
"Damned wheat!" Hughie reached for his handkerchief but banged the funny bone of his left elbow on the steering wheel, and his right hand, in an effort to rub the decidedly unfunny tingling, knocked Mrs. Bishop's coffee cup to the floor. It landed on a crescent wrench with a clink. As he bent to pick it up, the handle came off in his right hand, and he juggled the cup briefly before setting it back on the dashboard holder, plopping the handle inside the cup. The tickle shot downward again, and he barely grabbed his handkerchief in time, banging his head on the steering wheel. Doing his best to nip what he knew was the beginning of a long, itchy spell, he reached into the well behind the seat and plopped the barrel bag down beside him. Unzipping an outside pocket, he grabbed one of the allergy pills prescribed by his doctor in Detroit. Hughie had not sneezed, at least not allergy sneezed, since he had left Nebraska years before. Still, on good faith, the doctor had acquiesced and prescribed a preventative nondrowsy antihistamine. He plopped one in dry and shook his head to help the pill scrape down his throat, wondering how rich he'd be by now if he had a dollar for every time he'd banged that damned steering wheel with one body part or another.
How long would this speckled rust bucket of a truck go on? he wondered. How many times had the speedometer flipped over? The current reading was 82,386 miles, but at least another 200,000 had to be added for any approximation of accuracy. Still, the speedometer worked just fine. Sure, its orange needle vibrated a bit when the truck crept over fifty-five, but what or who didn't shake a little at that speed? To the right of the speedometer was the fuel gauge. Nothing wrong there, knock wood. Beside it was a vacant hole. A dashboard clock, revolutionary and downright futuristic in pickups back then, used to fill the empty space.
Hughie tried to remember how long his family had the truck. He knew the model year, of course, which wasn't a valid measuring stick. His father had bought the pickup used, never being able to afford a new truck. Although a thrifty purchase, the years had taken their toll. Hughie wondered how long it would be before he'd have to perform the last rite: haul the old workhorse of a Chevrolet out to the rear of some desolate dump and, mercifully, put a bullet through her radiator.
A breeze rustled the overhead tree. The sun lanced through parting leaves as droplets fell to splatter in dull thuds against the windshield, while rays of light glistened off a single square of glass dangling from the rearview mirror. Rectangles of reflected light swept over Hughie's face like a dance hall mirror ball and then vanished as the sun hid behind a cloud.
The square of glass was all that remained from a set of glass wind chimes once belonging to Hughie's mother, Irene. She left the family several years before, running off with a book salesman who sold door-to-door. Hughie could only assume the salesman's price had been right, one she was willing to pay. While his father never outwardly dwelled on the matter, Hughie knew otherwise. It had never ceased to take its toll on Lemuel Decker.
A blaze of sun flashed off the glass chime, and Hughie leaned out the window to look at the sky. Puffy clouds chugged southeast, leaving swathes of cerulean blue in their wake. It promised to become a beautiful afternoon on the prairie. He sat back and watched the sun flicker off the solitary square of glass, as it swung silently, its pendulum arcs erratic and infinitely pointless. Its only regularity was the string, now tethered like the solitary prisoner it was to the rearview mirror. Hughie chuckled softly, the irony of the rearview mirror not lost on him. What was the point of the mirror but to see what you had passed, what was behind you? Like the chime, Hughie was tethered to his own mirror, for all he could see was the reflection of what once was. He closed his eyes to cut off the glare from the spinning glass. Before he knew it, the dreams were upon him again. He knew that to ever escape the past, he must somehow cut its tether, severing himself from it. But how?CHAPTER 2
Lemuel Decker first met Irene Baxter when they were students at Logan High. She was a fresh-faced, popular girl, a varsity squad cheerleader at the unheard age of fourteen, and had been elected vice president of the freshman class. Lemuel, three years older than Irene, was a straw-haired chunk of a farm boy who took the school bus home regularly after the three-fifteen bell. He was shy and kept mostly to himself, rarely fraternizing with his classmates. He was disciplined but an average student; dutifully he went from class to class, barely discerning one subject from the next. But he loved gym class, especially in the spring, for Lemuel Decker had a natural gift for baseball. He never wore a glove, always racing out to play center field. His classmates didn't exactly fight him for the position. Most of them liked the fast-paced infield game, and it sure beat the hell out of standing way out there in the hot sun. And besides, no one could play center field like Lemuel Decker. Nothing got over his head, and his arm could throw a runner out at the plate on a sizzling line drive. When at bat, the opposing outfielders looked like ants they played so deep, for Lemuel could hit the ball practically across the county. The baseball coach all but begged on bended knee for him to try out for the team, but as baseball practiced after school, the dutiful farm boy had to catch the bus for the chores that lay in wait. To his regret, his only club affiliation in high school was not the Logan Panthers but the FFA, Future Farmers of America.
And so, Lemuel Decker plodded through high school with a steady yet undistinguished progression. Being extremely shy, he blushed at the slightest provocation and generally walked with his head down, avoiding eye contact and thereby discouraging most attempts at conversation. In later years, if anyone were to ask Lemuel Decker to name two things about high school that stood out most in his mind, he would cite the day he knocked the cover off the softball in gym class and the first time he laid eyes on Irene Baxter.
It was a clean and crisp early winter day. The sun reflected off the glaze of ice-veneered snow that crunched lightly underfoot.
Promptly at the three-fifteen bell, Lemuel bounded down the front steps of Logan High toward his bus. He nodded a greeting to Olive, his bus driver, and began to hoist himself through the bifold doors when the corner of his eye caught a sudden flash of yellow, accompanied by a brief yelp and a muffled thud. A young girl lay flat on her back in the snow, a yellow beret jauntily covering her face. Without thinking twice, Lemuel bounded over and, grabbing her arm, hoisted the girl effortlessly off the snow, setting her down with a gentle plop.
"Are you okay, ma'am?" Lemuel asked, for he called every female he did not know ma'am, no matter how old she may be.
Irene's head was tilted forward as she brushed the snow off the hem of her coat. "Why, yes, I'm fine. Thank you." Her voice was muffled by the beret, which still obscured most of her face. Lemuel looked down at her with guarded amusement as, despite the fact he'd heard the expression since he was knee-high to a knee, he'd actually never heard anyone talk through their hat.
"Pardon, ma'am?" Lemuel asked.
"Sorry." Irene giggled as she righted her beret and smiled up at him.
The honest-to-God breath was sucked from him, as if someone had stuck the end of a bellows in his mouth and spread the handles. He looked into the greenest eyes he had ever seen, while the yellow beret rode waves of hair the color of cinnamon. Her smile showcased a solitary dimple on her left cheek, and laughter crinkled her eyes, the sound rippling like a stream bubbling over pebbles. Lemuel stared at her, mouth agape, further words lodged firmly in the vacuum of his throat.
"I'm Irene Baxter," said the pretty girl, extending a delicate gray flannelled glove.
It took a moment for the gesture of introduction to register.
Lemuel reluctantly took the proffered hand, afraid it would shatter in his grip.
"Lemuel Decker," he barely managed.
"Pleased to meet you, Lem." Irene smiled, surprising him with an unusually firm grip. Lem (no one had ever called him that before) could think of nothing to say and attempted to cover his awkwardness by bending over and scooping her books from the snow.
"Well. I guess chivalry isn't dead after all." Irene smiled, taking the books.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Offspring"
Copyright © 2017 Bill Pinneil.
Excerpted by permission of Page Publishing, Inc..
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