Tami Parker Other Duties as Assigned

Finish the Story: Kids


Join in for a lighthearted, no-pressure writing prompt. Leave your perfectionist at the door and follow a dangling story thread to see where it leads you.

I always post my story doodle in the comments, and I’d absolutely love to see yours as well if you feel comfortable sharing it!

Sometimes kids are the only ones willing to say what’s really on their minds, and our family needed a little dose of honesty. We almost never said something straight out. My mother was the worst. All she would do was …

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  • Sometimes kids are the only ones willing to say what’s really on their minds, and our family needed a little dose of honesty. We almost never said something straight out. My mother was the worst. All she would do was ask open-ended questions. Even statements that shouldn’t be questions ended up an upward lilt, as if to soften the blow of even the most innocuous expression.

    There was no, “It’s a nice day outside.” Instead, it was always “Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

    While that may seem innocuous, I assure you it wasn’t. My family was plagued with “If that seems okay to you?” and “If you think that sounds like a good idea?” It’s as if we weren’t allowed to express certainty.

    It doesn’t take long for that kind of thing to infect your own speech. I went through years of parent-teacher conferences, fists clenched in my lap while I pretended I couldn’t hear the teacher tell my mother that I had a self-esteem problem, and that the other kids were avoiding me and teasing me.

    Mom would nod her head, cluck her tongue, and parrot back a series of “Of course we can work on that, if it is what you think is best?” and we would have a silent ride back to the homestead in our wagon, only the heavy clip-clop of the old mare’s hoofbeats on the hard-packed earth disturbing the night.

    We never “worked on it.” After the fifth year of the same message, my sister and I were removed from the school rosters and taught our letters and figures at home.

    Of course, the townsfolk talked, but the didn’t really try to stop us. Ma’s needlework was the best anyone had ever seen. She sold quilts and dresses and embroidery to visitors who came in on the train just for that singular purpose. And Da’s vegetables were always the biggest, most delicious available — even years when blights hit the other farms, his crops never failed.

    My sister never got teased as badly as I did, even though she was three years younger. Instead, she was praised for being so quiet and polite and for never speaking out of turn or asserting herself.

    As for Da, he never talked at all. I don’t know what his voice sounded like. Even when he bent over, wracking with a cough, he never made a single sound.

    Nobody talked about it, that was the worst of it. No questions allowed about Da’s silence or about what was in the woodshed that was always kept barred with iron and locked by a key we never saw.

    When we were younger, we asked. Of course we did. Our questions were always completely ignored, as if we hadn’t spoken.

    That was our life. Our “normal.”

    And that’s how it was until Da broke his arm.

    I heard the break. I feel like I can’t get the sound out of my head. The wet snap of it haunts my dreams. It was the mare — he was trimming her hooves and must have cut too sharp. She kicked out and ripped the lead rope from my fingers, bolting and bucking and limping.

    I ran to Da, where he sat clutching his wrist and screaming soundlessly.

    I left him and ran to the kitchen for Ma. She dropped her stitching without blinking, hiked up her skirts, and ran with me back to the corral.

    Da had staggered to his feet by then and had stopped that horrible open-mouth empty scream. His shirt and pants both dripped with blood and Ma sent me away. “Could you go find a bucket of water for me? And the first-aid kit, if it’s not too much trouble?”

    I did as I was asked, but a pressure built up inside my head. I wanted her to scream. I wanted her to shout at me. To tell me what to do instead of asking. I wanted Da to be able to yell his pain out, the way my sis and I did when we skinned an elbow or stubbed a toe.

    It was wrong. It was all so stupidly, horribly wrong.

    I made it back to them with the bucket half-empty from all the sloshing it had done during my run, but Ma didn’t scold me. I stepped back, but didn’t leave. I wouldn’t. Ma set herself to work and I watched her trembling hands rinse the wound. I watched her give Pa a swig of the liquor I wasn’t supposed to know they kept in the kit. I watched her set the bone, and that was the worst part of all.

    We’d had to put down our old horse for a broken leg. He’d stepped in a prairie dog hole, but even his break hadn’t looked this bad.

    It wasn’t this bad and he’d still been shot. I wasn’t allowed to watch that, either, but I’d snuck back after bed and watched. It was my fault, after all. He’d only been running because I’d been on his back, pretending to be a cowboy. I felt like I had to watch. Like it was part of my penance, to bear the weight of it.

    Da didn’t scream then, either, though he should have. I wanted to scream for him, but I stuffed my knuckles in my mouth and bit down hard enough to draw blood.

    He didn’t get better.

    Days passed and his fever caused him to thrash. His arm radiated a foul heat, and I saw the town doctor shake his head when Ma walked him back to his buggy.

    “Da’s not getting better, is he?”

    I turned and saw my little sister in the doorway.

    I shook my head and that horrible feeling of pressure built up inside me again.

    “This … this is all wrong!” she shouted. “Why doesn’t anybody talk about how wrong this is?”

    It was like someone struck a tuning fork against my soul.

    “I don’t know, but I am going to find out,” I told her.

    Her dark eyes glittered. “Promise.”

    I reached a crooked pinky toward her. “I promise.”

    We swore, and the pressure inside my head buzzed.

    We heard Ma come back in the house and we waited to make sure she was staying downstairs.

    Silently, we left through my window, using the same tree I’d shimmied down when I watched the horse die.

    This time, we went straight to the woodshed.

    Each link in the great iron chain that kept the doors shut was so large that I would have had to use both hands to lift it. I had never seen the lock open, and I wasn’t sure what I hoped to do that night, but the chains hung loose. The lock was open. The door was cracked.

    Holding my sister’s hand, I took every ounce of my bravery in my hand and still couldn’t manage to step forward.

    In my head, I heard the snap of Da’s arm. Saw his silent scream. Heard my sister shout about how wrong it was.

    I don’t know if she took the first step or if I did, but it didn’t matter. The door pushed inward as if the hinges were oiled, a task I had never seen my father do.

    The building was small, and lit by a small round window near the roof that spilled in moonlight.

    Instead of the tidy stacks of firewood I expected to find, the room held only a well. Similar to the one in the town square, made of fat gray stones with a bucket on a rope to lower down to the depths below.

    My grip on my sister’s hand tightened and we stepped closer to peer down into the well. We could see nothing. The moonlight barely pierced the top row of stones, but the waft of cold, wet air that rose from its depths set the hairs on the back of my neck on end and gooseflesh spilled across my arms.

    “Do you hear that?” asked my sister. Almost immediately, she shook her head and said more firmly. “I can hear a voice.”

    At first, I couldn’t … but then all of the sudden, I DID hear it. A whisper, soft as kittenfur.

    “Make a wish.”

    I blinked and saw two yellow coins on the rim of the well. I thought it was odd that I hadn’t noticed them before.

    “Make a wish. Take a coin.”

    My sister’s free hand reached out and picked up one of the coins, turning it over. One side showed a moon. The other side showed a hideous, grinning face that reminded me of the gargoyles on the church roof.

    “Make a wish. Take a coin. Pay a price.”

    My heart thudded in my chest and my thoughts clogged with a combination of panic and possibility.

    While I stood there, frozen with doubt, my sister threw her coin in the well. “I want to make Da better,” she said.

    A frigid wind blew up from the well, violently tugging at my sister’s skirts and freeing her hair from her ribbons. Her hair whipped around in a frenzy, almost stinging my arm where it hit me.

    Did I hear laughter? I don’t know. All I remember is the wind died in a heartbeat and the same instant, my sister dropped to the floor like a stone. Only her hand in mine kept her from hitting her head on the cold floor.

    She wouldn’t wake, so I lifted her in my arms and carried her back to the house.

    Ma’s hands fluttered against her throat when she saw us. “We’ve been to the woodshed,” I said, and her face grew so cold and so pale that I feared she might faint.

    Proof enough that she knew what was in there, if I still needed any.

    My sister touched Da’s arm that night, and his fever broke that night.

    She’ll never walk again. Her legs are completely useless. Moreso, there’s something wrong with her breathing. If she gets excited, she starts to wheeze and choke. She’s had a cold twice in the past month.

    There’s a gold coin in my pocket. I didn’t put it there, but even after throwing it into the forest, my fingers find it again the next morning.

    Nobody talks about how wrong this is.

Tami Parker Other Duties as Assigned