At a Distance

By

Jan McDaniel






Jo Ann looked at her garden.

"Sometimes the work needs hands to do it," she said to her daughter, "and sometimes it's the hands that need the work."

Working and worrying went together the summer Jo Ann's only child turned fourteen, as if God thought she might get too relaxed if Abbie learned not to repeat any of her mother's mistakes.

"You were born with wings," Jo Ann told the girl. "I guess you'll be gone soon enough, but not to that concert and not with that boy."

"Mama!" Abbie said the word in a dreadful way like it meant something bad.

"Bend your back into weeding this patch, Abbie. That'll soothe your troubles away."

The phone rang. They could hear it from the garden. Abbie turned, took the steps and crossed the porch like she wouldn't ever come back--the same way she had left a lonely Jo Ann on the first day of kindergarten. Abbie never looked back.

"Must be the mortuary," Jo Ann told the hollyhocks.

Following Abbie into the house, Jo Ann glanced at the caller identification box on the mantle. She smiled then grimaced at the memory of the first time the number had appeared on the digital display. She had grabbed the telephone book from the coffee table and thumbed through the cross reference guide in the back until she found the number and the corresponding listing.

Shocked, she had questioned Abbie later and learned about the boy who loved rock concerts. An eighteen-year-old who body-surfed in the mosh pits, he lived with his father in an apartment above the family business--Dailey's father owned a funeral parlor.

I'm not spying, Jo Ann told her reflection as she paused before the hall mirror. She might have eyes like Abbie's and similar curls the color of brown sugar crust baked on an Apple Betty, and even a way about her born again in the child, but she knew the years were beginning to show on her face and body. At the grocery store or anywhere in the small town of Pea Ridge, folks commented on the likeness. Abbie's so grown, they'd say. She is just like you. The two of you must be so close.

They meant well. The truth was the more Abbie favored Jo Ann, the more Jo Ann dreaded turning into an old woman. It had been months since she had been able to fool herself into thinking she and her daughter could ever be friends again.

Jo Ann closed her eyes and turned away from the mirror. The only sound in the house was Abbie's muted voice coming from upstairs.

As the season continued, shouting matches made the dishes rattle on their shelves against the wall of the kitchen. Abbie and Jo Ann called each other names and stomped off in different directions. They fought about nothing and everything.

The day Abbie took the car Jo Ann screamed until she frightened herself.

"What are you doing, Abbie?" She had her hand on the car door before the vehicle came to a complete stop in the driveway. "Why are you driving the damn car? You got no license, no learner's permit, no adult in there with you. No sense!"

Late in the summer, when the apples on the tree in the yard had almost made it to fall, the worst thing happened.

"I told you to come alone, in secret, to settle this thing, Tana," Abbie said. She stood on a cliff above an abandoned rock quarry. "You alone?"

"You keep your hands off Dailey Byars, Bitch!" Tana Jones spat on the ground at Abbie's feet. She smiled and put her hands on her thin hips.

With bare rock all around them and white cut walls of the old stone works being reclaimed by scrubby bushes and grass below, the girls circled each other in the twilight. Beyond, on all sides, woodland spread across the valley.

"You're the bitch!" Abbie said. Her voice was low, almost a purr, and her eyes slitted.

The dance, the rhythm and the challenge followed a pre-set pattern as if the two on the ridge had no choice but to follow it. Tana muttered, "Let's settle it then."

At the Sheriff's office, Jo Ann concentrated on drawing in one dry, uneven breath after another. Abbie stood beside her father. His eyes searched the high corners of the ceiling while his hands clenched into fists at his sides, then relaxed.

Everything was unfolded in the small room, unfolded and examined, then packed away. Abbie looked as if she had no part in the goings on--like a child at a preaching where the words go over his head without meaning. Jo Ann balanced on shaky legs, afraid to say anything. She might scream if she tried to talk.

"Why did you do it, Miss Jo Ann?" The sheriff asked in his southern, loose-lipped drawl. "I understand there was a long-standing feud between Tana Jones and your daughter, is that right?"

Again, the questions and no answers. Jo Ann stared into Abbie's eyes and tried to see into her soul. A dozen other questions filtered through her brain, batted about and demanded answers more ruthlessly than the sheriff did. He drew his paycheck whether he got answers or not.

He waited a bit, and let a silence fall down around them in the bare office. He picked at lint collected on his tan shirt. He brushed it off of his brown pants, over his ruffling belly, when it fell.

"There was a witness," he finally said. "True, he was pretty far off down the ridge, looking for a place to set up his deer stand this fall. But, he recognized you, Miss Jo Ann. It'd be best to admit it."

Why doesn't he shut up his babble? Jo Ann put a hand to her mouth and it fluttered against the confusion and horror that remained trapped inside her, unspoken. Abbie hated the Jones girl. Could she have killed the child?

The awfulness of the deed broke over Jo Ann's bones like hammer blows. Even that paled when she thought of Abbie standing here in silence, letting her mother take the burden of the crime. Does Abbie know the consequences? Doesn't she understand what she did and what she is doing now?

Jo Ann's eyes, locked to Abbie's as surely as the cord that once bound them physically, looked at a stranger. It's Abbie, a voice inside her heart cried in rebuttal. How far am I supposed to go to protect my child? At a distance, the witness saw the woman in the child. They were alike.

Abbie has too much life ahead of her for this kind of start. How can I turn the finger of the law onto my child, knowing what it would mean? How can I quell my own instinct for survival? Tana is dead. Nothing can change that.

"We got to process you now, Miss Jo Ann," the sheriff said. "It's time to go."

With an awkward motion he pulled the handcuffs from his pocket and drew her hands together. A click and the sound again. He tugged on the cold metal to tell her to follow.

"Abbie," she called to her child, but she couldn't say goodbye. Her heart broke when she saw Abbie stand so cold, dispassionate and empty.

Long lashes kissed the soft curve of child's cheek still visible in the teenager. How many times had the small face been upturned, in joy and sorrow, to seek the comfort of her mother? Jo Ann felt a loneliness for each of the stages of Abbie's life and quickly pictured them in her mind--the two year old reaching out with delicate arms, the little girl's laugh at seven, the happy running-step at age ten. Where had these children gone?

Movement in Abbie's eyes brought Jo Ann hope. A tiny hope, lacerated with the impossibilities of the situation.

"Abbie," she said again. Her feet moved her toward the door and her soul settled into acceptance. If this was how it had to be--

"Mama," Abbie said as if she were coming home from a distant place, "Mama, I'm sorry!"

The two men in the room were startled beyond speaking as the story unraveled. Abbie, clinging to her mother and sobbing out the details of Tana's death, seemed released from some magic spell. She was Jo Ann's own again. Holding her child, Jo Ann looked toward the window. Beyond it her eyes searched the sky.

Outside the air was changing. An end-of-summer storm had come in from the west and the barometer was falling. Dark clouds rolled across the horizon and made the earth look small. Out on the ridge, Jo Ann knew, were only animals, bedding down at the signs, seeking shelter and letting the thunder come.

Jan McDaniel is a writer from the southeastern United States who lives with her husband and two daughters on a small farm in Georgia. Her published work includes short stories, curriculum materials, and articles for newspapers and magazines.


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