Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Jon Batson
It was raining. The rain woke me. Not that I was sleeping all that deeply. My sleep was troubled. I sat up, listening to the rain, trying to put a name to my fear.
I got up and went to the other bedroom, to Jackie and Ellie’s room. I pushed open the door and turned on the light. It was just as they had left it, neat and tidy, the bed made. There had been a few things on the bed, items not taken, decisions remade. I had put them away, folded and into the drawers as best I could; probably in the wrong drawers, but it didn’t matter, at least they were put away.
The rain grew louder and I felt the fear again. I went into the living room and picked up the phone. It was dark out. The math wasn’t working in my head, I couldn’t tell what hour it would be in Germany. I dialed Ellie’s phone anyway.
“Hello?” said a sleepy little voice.
“Ellie? It’s Grampa.”
“Hmm. What time is it?”
“It’s the middle of the night here, darling, so it’s probably near dawn there.”
“Oh, are you OK?”
“Yes, dear, I’m all right. It’s raining here. Is it raining there?”
“No, Grampa, it’s not. It’s clear. Why are you calling?”
“Just worried. Listen, honey, where are you going today? What are you off to?”
“Who’s that?” asked a sleepy voice in the background.
“Grampa. Go back to sleep,” said Ellie.
“Hi to Jackie,” I said.
“OK. Grampa, what’s wrong?” she asked, concerned. I could hear rustling as she sat up, adjusting the blankets and pillows.
“Couldn’t sleep – strange thoughts. What do you have planned?”
“A day-trip, by bus, going to see a vineyard, then a small, hillside town with tourist shops.”
A dark cloud came over me, worse than before.
“Don’t.” I said, rather sharply.
“I mean, please, rethink the trip. Don’t go. It could be bad. I – I don’t know why. It would make me feel better if you didn’t go, is all.”
“Grampa, we already bought tickets. All our friends are going.”
“I know, but – I’ll send you some money, more than the tickets. I can get $250 to you as soon as American Express opens down at the mall. Stay in today, read a book, talk to Jackie, watch TV.”
“TV’s in German, Grampa. What’s going on?”
Oh, if only I could have answered that. But I told her the only truth I knew.
“I don’t know, honey. Slept rough, woke up frightened, missing you, concerned – and filled with a nameless dread that something could happen – something that will make me very sad.”
There was a silence on the phone. Then a breath, to tell me she was still there. Outside, I could hear the rain letting up.
“I’ll talk to Jackie. I’ll call you later. Go back to sleep. Oh, and you get your wish – it’s starting to rain here. Bye, Grampa.”
I hung up the phone, not knowing if I had warned her or just spread a baseless fear.
Fourteen months earlier, there came a knock at my door. No one was expected, there were no packages due. It was probably someone at the wrong apartment. I put on a robe, as I was still in my pajamas and slippers, and went to the door.
It was raining, cold for a spring day. The chilly air rushed into the apartment.
A young woman with a streak of purple hair and silver piercings in her eyebrow and left nostril looked up at me through heavily made-up eyes.
“Hi Grampa. Momma threw me out.”
Behind her stood another young woman, with short, blond hair and a defiant look. Both of them had backpacks and shoulder bags, both looked drenched to the bone.
“Well, you had better come in, then. Have you eaten?”
“No, and we’re famished,” said Ellie, pushing past me.
The second girl followed more slowly, pausing as she got to me. She looked up and her demeanor softened.
“I’m Jackie,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you, Jackie,” I replied.
“Where can we drop these?” asked Jackie, indicating her pack and shoulder bag.
“Put your stuff in the bedroom on the right. Just push things aside, we’ll fine-tune later. I’ll start breakfast.”
Nothing was said, nothing intimated or inferred; Jackie was clearly the dominant one, but was out of options. Ellie had to come up with a solution and she was down to me. I was the last possibility on their list. They wanted to go to school, but needed a stable residence and a guardian to sign papers for them. Clearly, my daughter had had enough of her rebellious child.
I knew about children. They rebel. My children did, I did before that and my father told me stories of his boyhood to raise your hair. It was the way of the world. One of these days, Ellie would look at a photo of herself and wince, putting it in the bottom of the box, so that her children will never know how foolish she was when she was young. But for now, no one could tell her she was anything but perfect. I decided it wasn’t my job to point out her flaws.
So Jackie and my grand-daughter moved into the second bedroom and went to the local college, freshman year. It was not a burden as long as I understood that things would be messier, louder and costlier than before, but that I would have company. Company was a big plus point. I wasn’t enjoying being alone.
As the school year ended, they came home bursting with news: they had been invited by their friends to go on a trip to Europe. It would be a mind-broadening experience. They would be with a larger group and it would be completely safe. I knew that it would also be expensive and things would be tight on the home front, but I had missed such a trip when I was young and was sorry for it. Beans and franks were a small price to pay for Ellie to never have that feeling.
Two weeks later, they left with eleven other children for Europe. They would have protested to hear me say ‘children’, but to me they looked like they were in kindergarten, so young and fragile. The last thing I did was to tuck a long-distance cell phone into Ellie’s pocket.
“El-lie, phone home!” I said, in a voice she probably didn’t recognize.
Ellie smiled, Jackie waved, and they were gone.
That night it rained. I sat alone in the dark and cried.
The morning after my excited call to Ellie, I had coffee brewing in the French-press. I felt silly. I turned on the news, but left the sound off, still thinking of that call, revisiting my feelings.
“I don’t know what got into me, but I just couldn’t rest until I had said something and let her know my concern. Yes, it’s probably nothing, but still.”
Clearly I had gotten to the stage where I was talking to myself.
The phone rang just as the commercial came on. I turned the TV off, not interested in the laxative being advertised, and picked up the phone.
“Hello,” I said.
“Grampa, it’s Ellie.”
“Hello, sweetheart, are you all right?”
“Yes, Grampa, we’re both fine. It’s raining to beat the band here, but we’re safe inside, dry and warm. We talked four of our friends into staying with us, so the bus left with only seven on it.”
“So you’re safe and with friends. That’s a good thing. Though I’m sorry you missed your trip. There will be other bus trips.”
“It’s OK, really! We have been telling stories and making fun of German television. We had a big lunch and sat for the longest time just watching the rain. So, we’re fine. I just wanted you to know.”
“Thank you, precious, you make me happy.”
“OK. Bye, Grandpa.”
“Bye, Ellie. I love you.”
“Love you, too, Grampa.” Ellie hung up, I was alone again.
Outside, the rain had stopped. It occurred to me that it had all gone to Germany.
The Best Journey
With the house so quiet, my neglected library called to me, so I chose a book at random, put on my specks and began reading. It was late that night when the phone rang again. I put down the book and picked up the phone, the fears of the night before a distant memory.
“Hi Grampa, it’s me, Ellie.”
“Yes? Oh, yes, I used to have a grand-daughter by that name. Is this she?” I said in my “old uncle William” voice.
“Yes, Grampa, this is she. Just wanted you to know that the bus got there OK, the other girls had a very nice visit and got back here without incident.”
“Good! The best journey, they say, is one without a hair-raising story to go with it,” I said. Still, I felt a little sheepish, calling her in the middle of the night, raving about disaster in the rain.
“Not that we minded staying in, we were warm and dry and got to know our friends a little more. We’re just glad nothing happened to our other friends. And they’re having their fun chiding us about it, so I thought you’d like to know that we’re getting it from all sides, and it’s seven to six, so we’re out-numbered as well.”
“All part of growing up, little one. Just remind your friends that you were worried about their safety and they should be glad to have a friend who cares.”
“I will, Grandpa. G’night.”
“Good night, darling. Say goodnight to Jackie.”
I put the phone down and sat there in the glow of the reading lamp. My fears, it seemed were in vain.
It was days later when the subject came up again. I had all but forgotten about it.
The phone rang as I was putting lunch on the table. I looked at the clock automatically. Five, maybe six in Germany. I picked up the phone.
“Grampa?” I heard, thin and quaking.
“What is it, sweetheart?” I sat down, grabbing the pad and pencil in case I was to take down flight numbers or anything at all.
“I want to come home!” cried my little angel.
“And so you shall, Ellie. Now, tell me what’s going on.”
The phone was handed off : “Let me,” said Jackie, as she took the phone.
“Hi, Grandpa. The police are here, they’ve been here all day. They’ve been questioning us.”
“Are you under arrest?” I asked, expecting the worst.
“No, but they want to know how we knew about the bus. I don’t know what to tell them. They want to talk to you. Here.”
“Mister Dawson?” said a husky voice with a thick accent.
“Yes, this is he.” I tried to sound official. I wasn’t sure what that was, but I tried to sound it.
“You are the grandfather of this girl, Elenore?”
“Yes, I am.”
“And her friend, Jacqueline, she is also living with you?”
“Yes. That is so.”
“They tell me that you called them and told them not to go on a bus trip several days ago. Is this so?”
“Yes, it is.” I was on guard, being careful not to answer more than asked.
“How did you know the bus was in danger, sir?”
That stopped me. I didn’t know now that the bus had ever been in danger. I was ashamed to say that I had hardly thought of the girls at all since that night, knowing they were all right. They were lucky that I remembered to send money, I felt so secure about them.
“I didn’t, I just had a feeling. It was strong enough that I made a call. I was worried that in the rain the bus might crash. I was glad to hear that it returned safely.”
“Yes, that was good.”
“I understand the girls took some ribbing for staying behind.”
“Joking, poking fun. The other girls, making fun of them for staying behind.”
“Yes, there was some of that, I hear. There is no poking fun now. No one is ribbing. Did you have some information beforehand about the bus? Are you in communication with anyone in Europe?”
“No, I don’t know anyone in Europe. May I know what is going on, please?”
There was a deep sigh on the other end of the phone.
“The bus was scheduled for a bombing attack. A bomb was planted under the bridge to the vineyard. When it didn’t go off, men came out from the town to see why. When they did, local police investigated, found the bomb and arrested the men. They are terrorists. America students were targeted.”
“Why didn’t the bomb to off?” I asked. My head was buzzing with a million possibilities.
“Because the bus was light by six students,” said the Gendarmerie officer.
A long silence prevailed. I could hear him breathing and he could probably hear me. The circular logic of it made my head spin.
“So, because six students were missing from the bus, it was too light to set off the charge?”
“Apparently so. It was a pressure switch, set to the weight of the bus plus the students. So several cars passed over the bridge safely, but the bus would have set it off – except of course, that it was too light. Thirteen students would have been enough, seven were not enough.”
“So,” I began slowly, “if my grand-daughter had been on that bus with her friends, they all would have been killed.” The very thought made me tremble.
“Yes, sir, I’m afraid that is so. But she was not on the bus.”
“And as a result, all the students are safe.”
“Yes, sir, that is the case.”
“So, it’s a good thing,” I said. There was a long pause on the phone.
“Yes, sir, that is the case. It was a good thing that you told her not to take the bus. What I want to know is how you knew to tell her not to take the bus. Can you tell me that, sir?”
“No, sir, I am sorry. I cannot tell you how I knew that. It is a mystery to me. But I’m glad that I could be of service. So you have the men responsible?”
“Yes, sir, we have the men.”
“And my grand-daughter can come home?”
“Yes, sir, she can come home.”
“Then would you put her on the phone?”
There was a silence on the line, then a shuffling, and then a familiar voice.
“Yes, Ellie. Please come home. We’ll go and see a vineyard together. There’s bound to be one somewhere around here.”
“OK. We’re coming home now. We’re all coming home.”
We did go to a local vineyard, and to many other places over the summer: art openings, local carnivals, the State Fair and so on.
The feeling that came over me that night never returned, no further glimpses into the future ever materialized and I did not live up to the reputation earned for me as a result of the phone call to Ellie; I was not clairvoyant.
The Gendarmerie found no evidence of foreknowledge of the incident. The facts were that three men intent on making a statement by blowing up a bus carrying thirteen American college coeds – whatever kind of statement that would be – had bungled the job. They had set the charges to a pressure switch and guessed the weight for the bus and it’s thirteen students. They did so to allow several cars to go over the bridge without setting off the charges and they could be miles away. When the bus came and went without mishap, they returned to the bridge to check their work, were seen by local police and the jig, as they say, was up.
The bus was light by six students. Ellie had not only heeded my call, but had convinced four of her friends to remain behind as well. That it was raining might have added to her argument. After all, it was a horrible day to travel, bomb or no bomb.
Ellie and Jackie spent three more years with those same students and in all that time, there was no ribbing. They meet annually, every summer. I am the guest of honor and am toasted with gratitude for calling my grand-daughter on a rainy day in June.