Children of the Pebble
By "Clinesterton Beademung", with all of love.
Disclaimer: "Trigun" © its respective creators and owners. I do this for fun, not profit. So there.
Comments and criticism welcome.
Chapter Sixteen – Lady of the House
"Well, Milly," Eleanor said, "looks like you're in charge now."
Standing on the front porch of her house, Milly watched the whipgrass in the north fields wave in the wind.
"Big responsibility, baby sister. You sure you're up to it?"
A green pickup truck was the only vehicle in the driveway. Eleanor's belongings filled the bed, covered by a canvas tarp. E. THOMPSON—CERTIFIED MASTER BLACKSMITH—THOMAS TACK OUR SPECIALTY! was stenciled on each door.
"If you're not, I could always cancel the opening of the new shop and move back in with Petunia."
"What? No!" Milly gaped at her. "I mean, that is, you're always welcome and I wouldn't mind a visit now and then…"
Eleanor raised her hands. "Just kidding, sis, just kidding. I was just wondering if you were listening to me."
"I'm sorry, Ellie. I guess I just don't know what to say at times like this." Eleanor, her little big sister, was shorter than she was by three iches, prettier, and about five times stronger than she'd ever been. The blacksmith's muscles that sheathed Eleanor's body like armor and bulged against her plain white blouse and blue jeans had never touched her princess-fair face.
Eleanor glanced at her wristwatch. "What's keeping that girl?"
Milly listened at the front door. Footsteps could be heard down the hall to the master bedroom, but they were too heavy to be anyone's but Mrs. Ramanujan's. The clatter and clink of Mrs. Turnipseed cleaning up after breakfast came from the kitchen. Beyond that, there was only the constant hum and rumble of the ceiling fans.
"You and Petunia are more than welcome to stay for lunch," Milly said. "You might be here for a while."
"Sorry, but we can't. I'll drag that girl out by her hair if I have to." Eleanor grinned, a brilliant and flawless stage actress smile. "You don't have to hide how glad you are to see us go, you know."
"You know that's not true."
Eleanor laughed. "Baby sister, I could always read you like a newspaper. We're cramping your style and in imminent danger of overstaying our welcome." Eleanor crossed her arms, inclined her head at the doorway. "He is handsome, isn't he?"
Milly turned her back to Eleanor. "I don't know who or what you're talking about." A hard, muscled arm slipped around her shoulders.
"Come on, Milly," Eleanor said, and shook her. "Has he asked you out or made a move on you yet? Are you going to take the first step? I could give him a few pointers before we leave, tell him what foods and books and music you like."
"Or maybe I could just steal him from you. Polygamy is still legal in some places. So I've heard."
"Steal who from whom?" Petunia, wearing a plain purple dress, stood at the threshold. She dropped her paisley patterned travel bag and pushed her wire frame glasses up on her nose. "Thinking of two-timing me already, Ellie?" She held up her left hand. The solitaire diamond sparkled like fireworks. "I could get some good money for this rock in December, I'll bet. Don't bother taking me home, I'll call a cab."
"Wait, wait, Pet," Eleanor said, and took Petunia's hand. "You know there's no one in the world for me except you."
Petunia's hard look softened. "That's what you keep telling me, isn't it? You really shouldn't tease my sister-in-law-to-be so much. She's been a gracious host."
Eleanor scratched her head. "Yeah, you're right. Sorry."
"At any rate, we should be going. You have to be in September by tomorrow morning."
"Look who's talking, lady." Eleanor raised her arm, flexed a bicep that would've been impressive on a steamer fireman. "All this driving around is making me soft."
Petunia wrapped her hands around Eleanor's arm. "We'll have to do something about that, won't we?"
"Yeah. I could use the exercise." Eleanor grabbed Petunia's travel bag. "I think we're ready to go. Finally."
Eleanor helped Petunia into the cab of her truck and shut the door. A long moment passed between Milly and her sister, a silence neither dared breach until they could no longer be held back, and she and her strong, gorgeous little big sister were holding each other, spilling tears onto each other's cheeks, promising to be near whenever one needed the other.
When Eleanor and Petunia had gone, Milly went into the house. In charge. She liked the sound of that.
Milly crossed the living room to the stairs. On her way up Milly leaned on the rail to avoid bumping the photographs. Five generations of the Thompson family had captured their favorite images and hung them on the stairwell walls. The stairs were a time machine, and every climb to the top floor was a journey of a hundred years and more.
Milly halted at the first landing. A portrait taken by her eldest brother Oliver at Harvest Festival a year and a half ago, of Meryl and her parents with her and her parents, hung before her. Good food, cheap wine, and a game she and her best friend had not yet finished. Were she and Vash still together? Milly hoped Meryl would call someday soon and fill her in. And if they weren't, if he had hurt her…
Three steps later there was another favorite, her parents' wedding portrait. They had married late; Dad was thirty-seven, Mom thirty-six, but their marriage had survived twenty years and ten children, and they still looked as if they'd stepped out of the courthouse that first day of their life together. At least Dad did. Age would not leave its deeper marks until he was well into his seventies, if her grandparents were any indication. Mom had better keep an eye on him.
On the second floor landing Milly stopped at another photograph, another family portrait, but this one was from two generations back, when Dad was nothing more than a come-hither look in Grandma Abigail's eye. There she was in front, sitting between her youngest big brother Marmaduke and her youngest big sister, Meredith. This was the only image of Great Aunt Meredith on the wall—and the only one Milly knew of. Grandma Abigail never talked about her, and when asked made it clear (sometimes painfully clear, with a sharp slap upside the head) that Grandma never would.
Milly blinked. At the bottom of the steps Mrs. Turnipseed was looking up at her. "Yes?"
"I apologize for interrupting, mistress, but I wish to know if the lady of the house will be having lunch in the kitchen today."
"The dining room will be fine, Mrs. Turnipseed. Thank you."
"As you say, mistress," the cook said, and went into the kitchen. Milly gritted her teeth. Two days ago she'd offered to help Mrs. Turnipseed clear the table and, over the cook's objections, proceeded to do so. Mrs. Turnipseed had tried to take a stack of plates out of her arms and her hands had slipped. Eleanor and Petunia had stepped in and offered to clean up the broken dishes but Mrs. Turnipseed would have none of it. Since then Mrs. Turnipseed had made it clear Milly's presence in the kitchen would never be more than tolerable.
Snooty old witch. Milly continued her climb and at the top of the stairs turned right, then a quick left. Mrs. Ramanujan was hard at work in Eleanor's room. At Milly's approach she halted her dust mop.
"Good morning, young mis—I mean, Miss Millicent," she said. "How may I be of service to you?"
"I was about to ask you the same question," Milly said. "But I guess I should know better by now, shouldn't I?"
Mrs. Ramanujan chuckled. "Yes, mistress, you should. This old woman appreciates the offer, though."
"You're not old."
The housekeeper laughed out loud. "The lady of the house is most kind." She returned to her work. "A pity to see Miss Eleanor and her fiancée leave so soon. I'm sure you enjoyed their company. Then again, our nights will be a bit quieter from now on, eh, Miss Millicent?"
Heat rose in Milly's face. Despite Mom and Dad moving away (and Mom was wrong, she'd never quite get used to that) she'd kept her old bedroom at the end of the top floor hallway. She had a notion of how exuberant lovemaking between a man and woman could be (though thinking about it left her sad and empty for some reason), but Ellie and Petunia, in a manner of speaking, had pulled out all the stops the three nights they were here.
Milly tiptoed across the floor to the window, bare of curtains. Three new harvesters roamed the south quarter, driven by the new field foreman and his two hands, gathering in days a harvest that had taken her entire extended family weeks to bring in. She supposed that was a good thing, freeing her brothers, sisters and cousins to live their own lives uninterrupted. Better than blistering one's hands on a scythe sixteen hours a day. Or was it? She'd tried to tell Dad the harvesters smelled bad and made the thomases skittish, had tried to tell him the new garage was too close to the corral. In fact, she'd chosen the site for the harvester garage herself, a plot of land across the Old North Road, leeward of the thomas barn. She'd tried to tell the contractor he was building in the wrong place, but…
Mr. Fletcher emerged from the thomas barn, bearing a saddle on his shoulder and a bridle in the opposite hand. He dropped them in front of the corral gate and went to his truck. He retrieved his lunch pail from the cab and sat on the tailgate.
"Hard work is fascinating, isn't it, mistress?" Mrs. Ramanujan leaned on her dust mop and peered around Milly's elbow.
"Sure is," Milly said. "I could sit and watch it for hours."
"It's going to be a hot day, Miss Millicent. You really should change into something more comfortable. Your new dress, perhaps?"
"Yes. I think I'd like that."
"I'll have it laid out for you momentarily." The housekeeper leaned the mop against the window frame. She stopped at the bedroom door. "You know, mistress, I'm quite certain Mr. Fletcher would gladly accept a glass of lemonade." A conspiratorial smile played around the corners of the stocky housekeeper's mouth and was suppressed, but lingered in the crow's feet at the corners of her dark brown eyes.
"You know, Mrs. Ramanujan," Milly said, "I do believe you're right."
At the back door, Milly hesitated on the concrete steps. A dust cloud rolled over the yard, and though it obscured her view of the thomas corral, the unmistakable sounds of animal anger came through the dry miasma loud and clear. She waited for the cloud to pass and walked to the corral fence, shielding the wet glass in her hand as best she could. In his hands Mr. Fletcher held leather reins, at the other end of which was a training harness. Within the harness, Hildegard, youngest of last year's hatchlings, struggled to escape. Mr. Fletcher relaxed the tension in the reins and let the harness slip from Hildegard's neck.
"Easy," he said. "Easy, girl." He lowered himself onto one knee, slipped off his glove and raised his bare hand, palm outward. "It's just me, sweetheart. You know me, don't you? Sure you do."
Hildegard tossed her head and grunted. She approached Mr. Fletcher, bent her head to his hand. Her nostrils flared, and the rumble in her throat was full of suspicion. This wasn't the first time he'd tried to bridle her, and there was nothing wrong with Hildy's memory. But the thomas nuzzled Mr. Fletcher's fingers, and flicked her tongue across his palm.
"There, there," he said. "That's a good girl." With the other hand he dragged the bridle and harness toward him. "Now, we're just going to give it another try, okay? Just one more little try, so hold still." He raised the harness onto his knee. "This won't hurt a bit, sweetheart, and I'll respect you in the morning, I promise…"
Milly jumped at the touch of something cold. A drop of condensation had dribbled off the glass and onto bare skin. Dad had often said a yearling thomas, male or female, should be seduced with sweet nothings rather than broken with brute force, but she wondered if wranglers were required to be so…explicit.
Mr. Fletcher hoisted the harness onto Hildegard's neck. The thomas backed away, thrashing her head from side to side. Mr. Fletcher tightened the reins, cinching the harness. Cords stood out on his neck, his muscles strained at his shirt. His eyes were locked onto the thomas's, a direct challenge Hildegard would have to learn to endure. A minute later it was plain to Milly that the struggle had reached an impasse. Mr. Fletcher and Hildegard were breathing hard and deeply, but neither showed any inclination to relent. Mr. Fletcher dug his boot heels into the earth, careful to dodge the fresh pats Hildy had left for him.
Milly stared, fascinated. The struggle could go on for hours at a time, and could take months. Even then, there was no guarantee the animal could be broken—
"Miss Thompson—" Mr. Fletcher gave a loud cry as Hildegard caught him off guard and snapped her neck like a whip. Her wrangler and tormentor pitched forward onto the ground. He coughed, pushed himself up, and made a face at the malodorous brown smear on his shirt. Hildegard shook off the harness and grunted in rapid bursts.
"Oh! Mr. Fletcher, I'm sorry…I'm so so-sorry…" Milly joined the triumphant yearling in her laughter.
Mr. Fletcher gaped at her, swept off his hat, searched the heavens for mercy and, finding none, leaned on his knees, laughing in surrender.
Milly opened the corral gate for him. "I'm really very sorry, Mr. Fletcher," she said. "Please don't be angry with me."
Mr. Fletcher washed his hands under the cold stream from the yard pump. "Not at all, Miss Thompson," he said, and dried his hands on his jeans. "Happens a lot in my line of work." He arched his back, spread his arms for a luxuriant stretch. "I'm guessing—hoping—that glass of lemonade is for me."
Milly extended the glass. Mr. Fletcher took it and drained it in one long drink.
"Ah, that hit the spot," he said, and gave it back. "Thank you, Miss Thompson." He turned and walked toward his weather-beaten truck.
Mr. Fletcher stopped. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Um," she said, "That is, wouldn't you—will you let me wash your shirt for you?"
The wrangler and handyman smiled. Milly's head went light. "No need, ma'am," he said. "I have a clean shirt in my truck. Several, in fact. I usually just throw one away when something like this happens."
"Are you sure, Mr. Fletcher? Please, I can have your shirt washed in just a few minutes and in this heat it won't take long to dry, you don't want to throw away a perfectly clean shirt do you? Please?"
Mr. Fletcher hesitated, then unbuttoned his unfortunate shirt. Perspiration shone on his browned skin, glistened on the curly black hair of his chest. Milly had never known many blacksmiths, Eleanor included, but she was certain none of them, Eleanor included, could beat this man in any contest of strength one could imagine.
Milly's head threatened to detach itself from her neck and float away. What a hard worker he is, she thought, and took the soiled garment from his hand.
"Miss Thompson, I'll, um—" Mr. Fletcher jerked his thumb at his truck. "I'll just get that clean shirt to wear for the time being, if—if you don't mind, that is."
"Oh. Yes, Mr. Fletcher, of course. Please go ahead." She watched him walk to his truck. The two suns, near their maximum distance from each other, stared like fiery eyes at the world.
Inside she kicked off her sandals and handed the shirt to Mrs. Ramanujan, who carried it to the laundry at arm's length. Milly left the empty glass on the kitchen counter nearest the door. In the living room Milly flopped onto the sofa, pulled up her skirt to let the ceiling fans cool her legs. She unlaced her dress and loosened the knot on her bustier. Now she could scratch that horrible itch under her left breast.
"Not the most dignified pose I've ever seen, Miss Millicent." Mrs. Turnipseed extended a glass of iced barley tea. "But I suppose this is no time for dignity."
Milly sat up, retied her dress. She drew the hem over her legs as far as she could, to the tops of her knees.
"You just mind your own business," she said, and accepted the glass. "It's hot today, that's all."
"As you say, mistress." Mrs. Turnipseed turned to go, then stopped. "My apologies for speaking out of turn. The lady of the house is hardly interested in what I think." Mrs. Turnipseed resumed her course for the kitchen.
Snooty old witch, Milly thought. Sure, the dress was a little more revealing than her others, hemline a little higher, waist a little tighter. She'd been willing to settle for something off the rack but Mom, through Mrs. Ramanujan, had insisted on having it hand-fitted and handmade right there in the house. For once, Milly hadn't resisted being fussed over. The look on Mr. Fletcher's face had made the whole ordeal worth the trouble.
Milly finished her tea, went to the laundry room upstairs and found it empty. A shirt hung from the clothesline outside the window. She reeled it in and folded it. She lifted it to her nose, and smelled nothing but sunlight and fresh air. She listened, and heard nothing but the groan and sigh of the water pumps drawing their life-giving wealth from the planet.
Later, when the leading sun was grazing the horizon, Milly approached Mr. Fletcher, who had the hood of his truck open and was peering into the engine well. She hoped he wouldn't hate her for this, too.
As she expected, the startled man jerked upright to hit his head on the hood. He turned, smiling and rubbing his head. "Yes, Miss Thompson?"
Milly held out the shirt. "I was wondering if, before you go, you could do me a favor?"
Mr. Fletcher set the oilcan on the porch railing. "Try it now."
Milly pushed off with bare feet. The chains made no sound.
"Thank you, Mr. Fletcher," she said, and stopped the swing. The thomas rancher's son swept off his hat, moved to wipe his brow on his sleeve, and stopped. He sat on the swing, and Milly set it rocking at a slow, comfortable pace.
Mrs. Turnipseed emerged from the house, bearing a tray with two tall glasses. Milly didn't care much for lemonade, but she decided as long as this man wanted to keep her company, she would share his thirst for it. Mrs. Turnipseed gave them the glasses, and with a backward glance went back into the house, looking as if she'd sucked the juice out of a lemon.
Snooty old witch. Milly lifted her feet, and while Mr. Fletcher kept up the rhythm she let the north wind coming off the fallow whipgrass fields cool her face and neck. The fresh scents of life and moisture filled her nostrils. Dad had suggested to her that it was time to cut down the native grass and get the field ready for the next planting season.
Mr. Fletcher drained his glass, rolled it over his forehead. "Hot today."
"Sure was." The breeze played over Milly's bare legs. She shivered.
"Oh, by the way, ma'am, I'll have your bedroom window replaced by early Monday. Or I can stay late and replace it tonight, if you like."
Milly sipped her lemonade, suppressed a grimace at the sour taste. Had Mrs. Turnipseed left out the sugar? "No, that won't be necessary. I wouldn't want to keep you too late, not on a Friday afternoon."
"Have to stay late, anyway. The old truck is running hot, think my radiator hose has developed a leak. I may have to pull it out and—" He looked at a spot between his feet. "You know, patch it, or even replace it."
"Of course, Mr. Fletcher. When hoses get stiff, they need to be replaced with more flexible ones." Milly copied his gesture. "You take whatever time and water you need."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."
Milly took another drink, peered at her thomas wrangler above the rim of her glass. He was looking straight ahead and his hands were wrapped around his own glass so tightly she expected it to explode into fragments any second. But his legs kept the swing in a gentle rock that kept time with the swaying grass.
The Fletchers have been raising and wrangling thomases in the Canberra Territory for eighty years, Mom had told her a few days after Mr. Fletcher had been hired. Their farming stock was prized for its strength and endurance and sturdiness, and their racing stock for its speed and attractive lines. Mom had gone on to repeat a dirty joke about how the first Fletcher, a man of legendary looks and strength and appetite who, after a lost bet, had "shared" those characteristics with the thomas species, and as embarrassed as Milly had been then she had to agree those qualities were strong in his (human) ancestors. One in particular.
"Mr. Fletcher," she said, "I was wondering if you might do me another favor, before you go."
"Of course, Miss Thompson. Anything. Well, that is, you know…within reason."
Milly stopped the swing and scooted closer. "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind calling me Milly, from now on." She resumed swinging.
"Milly," Mr. Fletcher said, and smiled as if his pleasure would illuminate the whole world. "That's a pretty name, Milly."
Milly felt her heart skip a beat. "Short for Millicent," she said, and locked her gaze onto the distant hillock above her favorite spot. Short for Millicent. Nice going, Milly.
The evening progressed in silence. Milly saw no need to embarrass herself any further, and was content to enjoy the breeze that had cooled with the setting of the first sun. The whipgrass bowed and straightened, and every now and then a sharp gust would shake off a cloud of pollen that would vanish among the leathery green stalks thomas wranglers and rope makers prized for their tensile strength and flexibility. She had said to Dad everything she'd said to Meryl on that afternoon at Meryl's homestead, and that it was too soon to raze the grass, too much to force virgin land to accept artificial fertilizers. And sending those whirling metal monsters into that rich living field, to knife the soil with plow and harrow before it was ready—it was like rape. No, not like. It was rape, and she'd threatened to throw herself in front of the harvesters to make them stop. Dad's cross response had been a razor blade drawn across her heart but he had relented. She was in charge.
Mr. Fletcher stopped the swing, and scooted closer. He leaned toward her.
"Thank you for the lemonade, Milly short for Millicent. And for your company."
"You're welcome." The sound of her name on his lips made her wonder what it would taste like.
Mr. Fletcher put his glass on the porch railing and stood. He pulled on his hat, leaving a lock of curly black hair dangling on his forehead, and picked up the oilcan.
"I'd better tend to my truck," he said. "Otherwise, I might not make it home before dark."
What a tragedy that would be, Milly thought. She could flatten his tires, or maybe rearrange some of those wire doohickeys on the engine—
"And I'll tend to your window first thing Monday morning." Mr. Fletcher stopped at the front door. Again, his smile seemed to push back the encroaching night. "I'll take it kindly, Milly, if you call me Nick from now on."
He nodded. "Nick. Short for Nicholas. Good night, Milly." He disappeared into the house.
Milly pushed backward, lifted her feet. Nick. Short for Nicholas. Had she known someone by that name? Impossible to think straight, with all the frustration in her stomach and the fire in her veins, unquenched by that snooty old witch's bitter lemonade. Maybe one day real soon I'll flatten your tires and rip the wires out of your engine both, Nick short for Nicholas, and then we'll take a picnic basket, ride thomases through the grass to my favorite spot, away from all the noise and family, and we'll eat sandwiches and drink coffee and you'll spread your overcoat and start kissing my neck and I'll find out exactly what my name tastes like
Thinking of two-timing me already, Milly?
In the swaying grass Milly thinks she sees a red spark, probably just sunlight reflected from a piece of quartz but the hand that holds it is pale, so pale, and she can imagine the clouds on the wind are not puffs of pollen but cigarette smoke
You can't let me go.
I already have do you hear me I already have
I came back for you. I told you I would.
Liar I waited for you liar but you never came back I waited and waited and waited
I've come back. Now we'll be together.
No go away please just leave me alone
Milly gasped and lifted her head. Her grip on her glass had relaxed, dribbling Mrs. Turnipseed's awful sour lemonade down her legs. Had she slept? A dream. That's all it was. A bad bad sad dream.
Milly moved to set her glass on the railing, but missed. The glass shattered on the golden wood. Tomorrow she would tell the field foreman to begin clearing the whipgrass in the north fields.
(Two projects, a raise, a handful of minor life upheavals and two marathon sessions of "Kingdom Hearts" later…)
Hello again! To those of you who are still reading (not many at this point, I'll bet), I apologize. I wish I'd started writing fan fiction about fifteen years earlier, before I got all married and responsible and stuff. But I'm still writing, and that's the important thing. To me, anyway.
Next: Pandora's Box. Elizabeth learns that it's possible to have too much knowledge. See you then!