Short Stories

Anywhere but Jewell

By: Owen Carpenter

Jewell, Kansas"Jewell, Kansas" by Haydn Blackey is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It was just an ordinary farm house in rural Jewell Kansas. It was all that Harley had ever known. There was nothing that stood out about the Phoenix family farm. The brick red paint on the barn was chipped and the roof looked weathered,as a 2 pack a day smoker’s face. It was just one of twenty or so identical family farms off the main highway. If you blink as your drive past it, you just might miss it altogether.

Jewell Kansas - the name of Harley’s home town conjures up images of luxury and extravagance, but nothing could be further from the truth. Once America’s heartland, Jewell was only a sillhoutte of its former glory days - peeling at its edges like a blistering sunburn starting to heal. People who drove through Jewell were forced to roll their windows up and hold their breath because the fumes were as noxious as forgotten rotten eggs left to rot in the sun. Harley felt as if he’d been holding his breath his whole life.

Harley’s parents and younger sister loved farm life. They were happy to spend the rest of their lives taking care of the land and the animals. Harley had never felt that way. From the moment he could talk, all he ever spoke about was leaving Jewell far behind him. He never understood why he felt differently than the rest of his family members. Harley spent his days dreaming of concrete sidewalks and skyscrapers that ascend up into the clouds. He only had a few more months until he would be able to break free from the subconscious fumes that permeated his every breath. Graduation was just around the corner and Harley could practically taste the sophisticated freedom that he knew was waiting for him, anywhere but Jewell.

“Don’t forget to get those cows back in the barn Harley!” mom shouted from the kitchen.

“I know, I know,” replied Harley. “I’ve been doing this all my life,” he muttered under his breath.

“Wait for me!” screeched Clara as she stumbled out of her bedroom, clutching her pink boots tightly. “I want to help take care of the cows. I’m seven now!” she exclamied.

“No Clara, you stay here. The storm looks like it’s getting worse,” she said as she flinched at the lightning bolt that lit up the entire room momentarily.

“And gather the eggs from the chicken coop. We don’t want them to go to waste like last time the storm rolled in,” said Dad.

“Okay, okay. I’m going,” Harley said as he reluctantly pulled on his leather boots, worn and cracked from years of the hard manual labor that it took to keep the small family farm running. To his parents, there was nothing more important than the family farm. To Harley, there was nothing more important than leaving.

Harley brushed his dirty blonde hair away from his steel blue eyes. He was up well before the sun most mornings, but whenever a big storm was about to roll through, Harley rose before the moon had even begun to set.

While Harley hated most things about farm life, he did relish the quiet moments bathed in moonlight. He would often use the solitude to dream about leaving Jewell behind him. Harley would be a senior at his local high school this year. Thoughts of college life in a big city helped him find the strength to carry on with the mind numbing monotony of life on the farm.

Tonight, however, would not be one of those quiet dreamy nights. A massive storm had rolled in and was expected to create weather perfect for tornadoes. Harley rushed to gather all the animals back into the musty barn. He could hardly open his eyes due to the wind and rain flying at him from seemingly every direction.

The last image Harley has of his parents alive is colored by the beautiful darkness swirling around them, whipping the hay bales into a frenzy. And then, everything went gray - a colorless swirl of disappointment and obligation swallowed up Harley’s parents and Clara had witnessed the horror first hand. It nearly swallowed Harley as well, but at the last possible second, the tornado spit him back out like a piece of food stuck between its teeth.

Clara heard the low hum of Aunt Clarice’s Buick idling in the driveway. It sounded as if even the car knew that Jewell was not a place that deserves anything more than a quick stop at the gas station before refueling and getting back on the road to somewhere, anywhere else.

“She didn’t waste any time did she?” asked Harley as he finished buttoning up the only suit that he ever owned. It was much too tight now, much like how his throat felt whenever he thought about taking care of Clara now that his parents were gone.

“Maybe she can move in with us, now that mom and dad are gone,” said Clara. She looked longingly at Harley, waiting for some acknowledgement that everything was going to be okay, despite the fact that they were now both all alone.

“I wouldn’t count on it Clara, Aunt Clarice has never been one for country life,” Harley said as he helped Clara button her coat. “Besides, we’d be better off in the city,” Harley said as his palms began to sweat at the thought of the responsibility of raising Clara. He’d always dreamed of leaving Jewell behind him, but never like this.

“I can’t believe he doesn’t know. How is that even possible that after 18 years, Harley never knew that he was adopted?” a whispered voice rose just to the level that allowed Harley to question everything. He let his shoulders drop and he kicked the gravestone hard enough that everyone at the funeral noticed. He tried to pretend that he’d tripped but the tears in his eyes gave away the fact that the family secret had finally been exposed.

“Who will be left to take care of Clara?,” asked Harley, with a shaky voice, after realizing that he would have to take on that responsibility. Harley had time to stew, but was still in denial, theorizing on what his future would hold, after this travesty, not even beginning to consider how Clara might be taking this, but Harley was too wrapped up in his thoughts.

Harley talked to his aunt several hours after everyone had dispersed from the funeral hoping to get any form of closure, “... Certainly it can’t be me,” Harley said hastily, “How do they expect me to take care of her when I am barely an adult myself.” Harley’s aunt tried her best to comfort Harley to little avail.

As much as Harley usually hated going to school in the tiny town of Jewell, he was actually looking forward to the distraction. The family routine of school allowed Harley a few hours each day where he could escape the problems that were sure to be waiting for him at home.

It was the first day back after winter break, and everyone had heard about what happened to Harley’s parents. Bad news spreads like wildfire in small towns. Living in the tiny town of Jewell, turned even the most well intending people, part of the gossip machine. Harley couldn’t help but hear the low whispers and hushed sorrow that hung like a virus in the air, crushing his spirit. Harley hated to be pitied, especially by high school students.

It was the last period of the day and Harley was exhausted from trying to keep up the appearance that he was fine. As he walked into the gym, the faint smell of sweat and disappointment hit him head on.

“Alright, Alright, settle down boys! I’m going to need you to line up alphabetically,” said the athletic teacher holding a clipboard in his hand. “My name is Mr. Myers. I will be your new gym teacher.”

The rumors must have been true. The previous PE teacher, Mr. Green had talked about retiring for a long as he had been teaching, but he finally did it. Harley caught himself envying an 80 year old retired public school teacher. He wondered which beach side community Mr. Green moved into.

Harley also felt relieved that at least one of his teachers wouldn’t look at him with those wide eyes that are reserved for only the most tragic of situations. For the next hour, he could start fresh and wouldn't be “that poor kid who lost both his parents.”

“I’m starting a track team this year and I hope that all you boys will consider trying out,” Mr. Myers said before mentioning that colleges often look for standout athletes to award full scholarships.

Harley always knew that his only way out of Jewell was a scholarship. His grades weren’t impressive, so he decided to commit himself to training to make Mr. Myers track team. When he walked past the locker room, Harely’s eyes met a flyer advertising a training session after school with Mr. Myers tomorrow morning. He knew Aunt Clarise wouldn’t like it if he left for school early. He was usually the one to fix breakfast for Clara and walk her to school but at the moment, Harley didn’t care. He needed to find a way to make it on the team if he was to have any hope of escaping Jewell.

The sun was still at least an hour away from emerging from beyond the horizon. It was just as well, Harley didn’t want anyone else to see him struggle to catch his breath as he rounded the last lap of the mile run for Coach Myers. As the sun crept up Harley pushed harder than he’d ever pushed before. He could feel each pump of his heart as it sent his blood flying through his spidery veins. As hard as his body was trying, it wasn’t enough to beat the other boys, but it was enough to catch Mr. Myers’ attention.

“Everyone, nice job. I’ll see you all back here next week,” said Coach Myers. “Harley, I need to talk to you before you’re cut loose.”

Harley walked as slow as molasses on a frigid winter night, an attempt to hold onto his dream of making the team for just a few more minutes. “I’m sorry Coach,” Harley said, as Mr. Myers interrupted him.

“No, no, don’t be sorry. I saw you out there. You might not have been the fastest but you were the most determined. I just wanted to know, what is it that you’re running from?,” asked Coach Myers.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Harley replied as his eyes drifted towards the blinding bright yellow sun rising in the sky, threatening to expose the truth.

“Try me, I just might,” said Mr. Myers.

“Well, I lost both my parents in a storm a few weeks back. Only to find out that they weren’t really my parents after all. Now, everyone is expecting me to take care of my seven year old sister, Clara, when I don’t even know how to take care of myself,” Harley said, as he waited for the weight of his words to come crashing down. Most people had no response to such heavy information, no matter how good their intentions might be.

“That’s a lot,” replied Mr. Meyers who held Harley’s gaze steadily.

“I knew you wouldn’t understand, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine,” said Harely, who was getting used to feeling alienated. Most people never experience such loss, let alone at such a young age.

“Actually, I was going to say that I can relate. See, I was adopted as well. I never knew my birth parents, but what I do know is that blood doesn’t make a family. It’s who you love and who loves you back in return. Just because you were adopted doesn’t mean you weren’t a family,” said Coach Myers as he put his arm around Harley’s shoulder.

Harley remained quiet and tried to take in what Coach Myers had said as they headed back to the locker room.

Harley breathed the steam from the locker room as he got dressed for the school day. He was grateful for the steam as it shielded the tears that had gathered in the corners of his eyes. He held it in, like he always did, but it was nice to know that he could have let the tears fall in the safety of the steamy locker room.

It was Cheerios, green apples, and milk for breakfast, Harley’s favorite. He rushed up to the breakfast counter at the same time as the new kid, Johnny. He’d seen Johnny from afar. In a small town like Jewell, everyone knew when someone new arrived.

“Hey, is this seat taken? Johnny asked as he grabbed a tray from the graying lunch lady.

“No, have a seat,” said Harley. It was nice to have company for a change. Usually, Harley ate alone.

Johnny glanced over at Harley’s gym bag as he sat down at the table. “Hey, I was wondering, do you know anything about the track team? I was thinking of joining. I used to run back in New York before my parents brought me here,” said Johnny.

“Actually, yeah. I’ve been training to join the team myself. Maybe we can work together. I’ve never run track before but I’m determined to make it,” said Harley.

“That would be great,” said Johnny. “Usually running is such a lonely sport. It’d be great to have someone to train with.”

The sharp shrill of the lunch bell rang out, catching both boys off gaurd.

“See you tomorrow morning then,” Harley yelled as he headed off to his next class. He was excited to have someone to help keep him on track. While Harley preferred to be a lone wolf, he was excited to have a friend who’d actually been to New York. Plus, he knew that he needed all the help he could get if he had any chance of making onto the track team.

By the time Harley got home, it was nearly 5:00pm. He could see Aunt Clarice standing on the porch. She looked as though she had just eaten a lemon, rind and all, and instantly regretted it.

Harley hoped he’d be able to pass by her unnoticed but realized that her eyes were fixed on him as soon as he came into view. He braced himself for what he knew would be an uncomfortable conversation.

“Harley, where have you been? Do you think you can just stay out as late as you want?” Aunt Clarice asked in a shrill voice.

“I was just at school. I’m trying to make the track team,” Harley replied, not looking up from a shiny rock that appeared on the front porch. He recognized the rainbow hue, like looking at a rainbow that appears after heavy rain, in an oily patch on the floor. He wondered if the storm that killed his parents had somehow moved the opal engagement ring that his mom had lost several years ago when feeding the cows. His eyes never moved from that spot as she tried to decide.

“It doesn’t matter now. It’s been decided. I’m taking Clara with me back to New York. We certainly can’t trust you to be responsible for her, now can we?” Aunt Clarice replied before she disappeared into the house.

Harley just stood there, frozen for several minutes, staring at the smooth river pebble on the ground. He wondered how it ended so far away from where it belonged and if it would ever get back to where it belonged.

Johnny’s name appeared on Harley’s phone. Harley picked it up and began to explain why he was so upset. “I don’t understand why everyone wants me to take care of Clara. She’s not even related to me!” Harley shouted into the phone, unaware that Clara had walked into the kitchen behind him.

“You don’t mean that,” said Johnny. “I understand, you’re upset but it’s not Clara’s fault. She’s still your family.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” said Harley. “Aunt Clarice is taking her to New York. There’s nothing I can do.”

Without a sound, Clara backed out of the kitchen, threw her boots on, and ran out of the house. She didn’t know where she was headed, she just knew she needed to get as far away from the farm as she could.

Aunt Clarice burst into Harley’s room just before midnight. He figured she was mad that he hadn’t finished all of his chores, or that he left a dish in the sink, or some other minor grievance.

Harley realized when he saw the wild look in her eye that something was wrong. “Clara’s gone. Do you have any idea where she could have gone?” Aunt Clarice asked.

Without a word, Harley got up, grabbed his jacket and headed out with Aunt Clarice to search for Clara. Could she have overheard his conversation? Clara had never run away before. All Harley could picture was Clara hurt and alone. He had to find her.

Harley tore through Jewell, which was bathed in eerie moonlight. He heard the sound of an ambulance siren in the distance and knew he should follow it. He ran faster than the speed of love. He made it just in time to see the EMT closing the door to the back of his ambulance.

“Was it a little girl? Please, I need to know, was it Clara?” Harley asked desperately, hoping for an answer.

“Yes, follow us to the hospital Harley. It’s Clara. She’s been hurt,” said the EMT. It was Jack. He’d gone to school with Harley but he was a few years ahead of him. That’s that thing about Jewell, everyone knows everyone one way or another.

Aunt Clarice and Harley drove in deafening silence. They both held their breaths, afraid to exhale and be forced to face what may wait for them at the hospital.

The walk into the emergency room was etched into Harley’s memory. He took in every detail. The broken glass in the street lamp shaped like a lightning bolt. The way the leaves crunched under his feet. The smell of alcohol and cafeteria sandwiches that greeted him when he walked through the sliding glass doors.

“Tell me where to find Clara,” Harley blurted out. He realized it was Johnny working the front desk.

“Of course man. She’s your sister right? Let me see what room they’ve brought her into. Wait right here,” Johnny said, worried that he might have to deliver news that Harely would never forget.

Johnny directed Harley down a long narrow corridor. He recognized the corridor from when he came to visit his parents. They needed someone to make the final identification and Harley was the closest family member.

Harley stared down at the tiled floor until he met Doctor Phillips. Harley slowly brought his eyes up to meet Doctor Phillips metal rimmed glasses. Somehow glasses always make doctors look more knowledgeable.

“Harley, it’s good to see you again. I wish it were under better circumstances,” said Doctor Phillips.

“Please tell me she’s going to be alright. I can’t lose her too,” Harley said, for the first time realizing how much he truly loved Clara.

“It’s serious. She’s in need of a kidney transplant. We don’t know how long she’ll have if we don’t find a match soon,” Doctor Phillips said. He patted Harley on the back and walked over to Aunt Clarice who followed Harley down the long corridor.

Before Doctor Phillips even had the chance to tell Aunt Clarice what was going on with Clara, Harley interrupted.

“I’ll do it. Let’s see if I’m a match,” Harley exclaimed. He couldn’t let Clara suffer if there was any way that he could save her, he was determined to do whatever it took.

“What do you mean?” asked Aunt Clarice.

Doctor Phillip replied, “Clara needs a kidney transplant. Harley has just heroically volunteered, but first, we need to see if he’s a match.”

wo ants were crawling towards a forgotten apple slice. It looked as though they were racing one another or against themselves. It was hard to tell. Johnny had been sitting with him, trying to help calm his nerves by making jokes about the ants.

Harley felt like they had been staring at the ants for days as he waited for the results. If it wasn’t for Johnny, Harley would have fallen apart.

Doctor Phillips quickly rushed through the double doors and announced, “You’re a match Harley. If you’re still sure about your decision, we’re ready to proceed with the transplant,” the doctor announced, waiting to see what Harley’s final decision would be. “I have to tell you, this surgery is not without risks, but your sister will not make it without it.”

Harley had already made up his mind during the agonizing wait. “I’ll do it,” Harley said. He knew with absolute certainty that this was the right decision, yet his heart dropped as the words left his mind.

The anesthesiologist prepped Harley. All Harley could think about was making sure Clara was okay. As he drifted off, Harley thought, “family is who you love and who loves you back.”

The lights were bright, too bright, flickering to the beat of his heart monitor. Harley knew he must still be at the hospital.

“Did it work? Please, tell me it worked,” Harley begged when he saw Doctor Phillips by his bedside.

“It worked!” replied Doctor Phillips. “You are a brave man who must truly love his sister.”

For the first time, Harley did not correct Doctor Phillips and remind him that she wasn’t really his sister. Harley knew for sure that Clara was his family.

Harley breathed a sigh of relief and asked if he could see Clara.

“All in due time. She’s resting now,” said Doctor Phillips.

It took a few weeks to recover from the surgery but Harley was so grateful to have Clara.

Upon arriving home, Harley saw Aunt Clara at the front door. Her face seemed serious, which struck fear deep inside Harley’s heart.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m just going to say it. Your parents didn’t keep up with the payments on the farm. Times were tough and they got behind. The bank is threatening to take the farm if we don’t come up with $5,000 before the end of the month, Clara said as she showed Harley the letter from the bank.

Harley was devastated. He couldn’t lose Clara or the family farm. It was everything to Clara.

Harley forced himself to go to school but his mind wandered back to the farm. How could he come up with that kind of money? He wasn’t even done with High School yet.

The last bell rang, startling Harley, waking him up from his daydream, and as he was gathering up his belongings, he saw Coach Myers approaching.

“Hey Harley, I just wanted to let you know about a race that is coming up. The prize for first place is $5,000,” Coach Myers said. “I know times must be tough for your family right now, maybe this will help, and I sincerely hope you think about competing in it.”

Harley rushed over to Johnny’s locker to give him the news. “You’ve got to help me train,” said Harley. “It’s the only way to save the farm.”

“Of course I’ll help you! You can’t lose Clara now,” Johnny replied.

The boys worked harder than they ever had before. By the time the big race day arrived, Harley knew that he’d done all he could to be prepared. Now, it was just up to fate. Harley wasn’t sure if he would be able to win, but he knew he had to try.

The smoke from the pistol starring the race remained heavy in the air. Everyone in Jewell knew Harley’s situation and were hoping he’d win the race. Harley saw Clara in the stands and he pushed even harder to get ahead of the other runners.

It was down to the last lap and Harley had a slight lead. He could feel his heart racing almost as if it might leap out of his chest, but he kept on pushing himself.

A rush of air brushed past Harley and he knew what that meant. He’d lost the race at the last second. He was devastated.

Just as Harley approached Aunt Clarice she smiled at Harley and pulled out a check from her purse. “Here Harley, I see how much you care about Clara. You two are a family, and I now see the lengths you are willing to go for her. You should stay together. I’m going to pay off the bank loan and you will keep the farm,” said Aunt Clara.

Harley couldn’t believe it. He threw his arms around his aunt. “Thank you Aunt Clara, I won’t let you down!” exclaimed Harley.

It wasn’t easy stepping up and taking care of Clara but Harley was determined to make sure he was there to take care of her. He worked diligently with Coach Myers and even ended up getting a scholarship to Jewell State University.

“I can’t believe I got in,” said Harley.

“I always knew you would,” said Clara, as she wrapped her arms round Harley and squeezed him as tight as her skinny arms would allow.

Harley realized that he was exactly where he belonged. Even though it had always been Harley’s dream to leave Jewell behind him, he saw that Jewell had always been precious, because that’s where his family called home.