Note: Check out Autumn Festival, the sequel to this story on Spillwords Press
It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but I couldn’t help myself. Winter came early in Autumn. The wind was whistling and gusts assailed my body, even through the shut windows. Instead of warm sunbeams hitting the foot of my bed like in September, my room was dark to the point of near-invisibility. Timely as usual, the household heaters decided not to work on the coldest of mornings.
It does sound crass to criticize cold weather one week before Thanksgiving. But the heat from September, Halloween and even a few days ago made it seem like summer was still beginning to wind down. Global warming? Let the politicians fight over that one.
While mother nature howled outside my window, I was chaired up at my desk, tepid coffee by my side, with an empty sheet of paper studying me; menacingly. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed between me waking up and making this mocha, but I do know my sheer ennui had only grown fiercer with my lack of ideas. Looks like the window and I were both fighting losing battles.
A loud creak came from under my chair and I jumped. Still in a daze, I couldn’t tell if it was a mouse or just me leaning back too far.
Eight. That’s what the clock read, and that’s how many hours ago I told myself I was going to do things differently. Look at me go. It’s pretty pathetic, to call yourself an artist when you spend an hour staring at the paper and haven’t even managed to brainstorm an idea. I was more captivated by the development of my coffee. It started off stacked like vanilla pancakes on a brown divot. Now it was more like a hazy quagmire a sailor would have to navigate through.
* * *
“I can’t do it this way…” I said aloud to no one. My response was the rattling of the window and a precious gift hanging above my bed. I rushed to it in a panic but I ended up spilling my coffee. I fell on the floor too, but I felt that the coffee spilling was a more accurate teller of my mood.
But hey, on the bright side, the mocha didn’t burn and my pants managed to shield it from the carpet. Well, the not-burning thing didn’t help, since it was cold. At least I wasn’t facing the cold from outside.
I snatched my mug and brushed off my khakis. When I finally got up, I was relieved to see my treasure was alright. Mom’s painting didn’t look a day older since I last saw her.
Always keep that smile Tommy, you’re the light of their day.
Goosebumps rolled up my shoulders. I could never forget that piece, such a wonderful piece. The curvature of the hillside mimicking a crescent moon. The dark blades of grass, short but tall enough to taunt the trees above them. And the focal point of the picture: an orange circular monolith, pulling the ocean over itself like sheets and yet still imposing to the docks. It was a scene of wonder. Nature itself was being put to rest.
Fifteen after eight. How long had I been standing there? Regardless, I couldn’t waste this time on nothing. I draped the khakis over my chair and got right to work. My pencil was whirling fast. Like a miracle, an idea was starting to form. Circles. Hills. Mountains, I was drawing little humps in the sky. I’d never drawn contemporary art before. Or was that the kind I needed a paintbrush for? Who cares. Today might just be the day I prove myself.
“Thomas! I need you boy!”
And, timely as usual, my symphony was cut short.
I grabbed some sweatpants from the closet and took a glance at my desk. Gray humps were definitely on the paper. But the shapes looked good for a first attempt. If I hurried, I’d be able to keep my artist’s high.
* * *
“Hey Chuck,” I said to Haroville’s number one tools-men. Cyrus Hartley, my uncle and the closest thing I had to an old-man. I stood at the bottom of the steps and saw him leaning by the lamppost in the hallway.
“Mornin’ Tom-boy. Thought I’d have to call you a couple times
But you came down right away.”
“Oh, well uh. Thought I’d do things differently this morning.” Almost.
“Well I’m glad you’re here. See, the Mayor’s phone line is still
down. I’ve been trying to ask him when we’d be getting those
supplies for the festival. You know he’s a busy guy. Can you run
this letter to em?”
Figures. The one time I expect to be productive, I get shelved with someone else’s work. Why couldn’t uncle Chuck handle this one himself?
“Sure Chuck. Leave it to me.”
“Knew I could count on ya boy.”
I’ve got to stop being such a pushover.
I got off the steps and grabbed a thermal off the coat rack. Chuck waltzed back into the garage. Unlike me, he was living the dream every day of his life. He probably went to build some new tables and lanterns for the Autumn Festival. It was a grand feast celebrated by the whole town on Thanksgiving. Haroville’s a pretty small and tight-knit community-town, so we can afford to throw such causal celebrations. Everyone knew everyone. Even when you leave, you always come back, the elders drilled into us when we were young. I spend a lot of time wondering what my friends off in college are doing. With all the parties and clubs they’re going to, do they ever think of home?
With my thermal on, I almost walked out the door before I realized that a scarf and hat weren’t a bad idea. I yanked my scarf from out the hall closet and grabbed my hat off its floor.
“Hey Chuck, whatcha workin’ on in there?” I asked. A snicker came from the garage.
“Nothing much boyo. Just polishing some tables for the festival. I
also made some figurines and other doohickeys.” A man in his element.
* * *
If this was what it was like windy, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like in the snow. My face was cold even through my hat and bush of hair. I had to close my eyes half of the time just to block out the wind.
The three block walk to the mayor’s house felt like an eternity, yet I somehow made it alive. I stuck the letter in his mailbox and rang his doorbell. A vexing wind practically froze my fingers before I leaped to the wall for warmth. Winter really wanted to show itself huh?
Against the wall, I surveyed the area. Dry grass shivered in the wind. Atop the flagstone leading to the town square were autumn leaves blazed in yellows and reds. Despite the arduous cold builders were still building, protected only by their spring jackets. The oldest of them, Paul Jones, was drilling holes into four wooden rectangular pillars. Well, they weren’t really pillars. They were bent in the middle like a horse’s kneecaps.
Paul’s been a friend of uncle Chuck’s since before I was born, even though Paul was fifteen years younger than Chuck. They used to go hiking in the woods before Chuck’s back became a serious issue. Since then, Chuck mastered the art of wood craftsmanship and showed Paul what he knew.
Besides Paul, there was Henry and Gordon—the former being the father of my best friend—who were moving some marble columns into the town square. Jeffrey was giving instructions to the younger workers.
I could tell by the columns what this year’s festival theme was: Ancient Greece. I never knew much about the polity of Greece (probably shouldn’t have slept through social studies) but I’ve always been fascinated by its legends. The story of Icarus and Daedalus in particular tugged a few poignant strings. A young boy is locked away from the rest of the world. He’s completely innocent yet cannot live a normal life. And when he is finally set free, he’s corrupted by arrogance, leading to his untimely demise.
Daedalus was a renowned builder and was loved by all. Just like his father, Icarus had a lot of potential. But did he ever get to use it?
My mother didn’t always live in Haroville. She grew up in Philadelphia—a place I knew little about. But she said it was nice. She called it an artist’s city. Whether upper or lower class, everyone had a story to tell. That was why she was always inspired when she painted. Her older pieces were vibrant drawings of city buildings or multicultural communities in harmony. I guess it makes sense her style changed to be nature-esque once she moved here. Haroville was a small town in Pennsylvania, far from Philadelphia. So small that it wasn’t marked on a map.
The thing is though, how am I supposed to get all that artist experience if I never left this town? I never worked and Chuck insisted on providing for me in Mom’s honor. Despite this, he refused to pay for me to go college. He didn’t want me poisoned by “metro-pollutin’ education.” In reality, it was because he didn’t want me to leave Haroville. Could I do great things without reaching my full potential? Maybe I was destined to fall like Icarus.
A loud howl broke my train of thought. I jumped and bumped my head against the wall. That noise couldn’t have been the wind. It was too feral. I crept off the porch and looked left. My eyes were slit against the wind. If I wasn’t mistaken that was—
“Foxie! Oh Foxie, please don’t act up at this time of day!”
A snow white furball rushed past me. It was a dog, a great pyrenees. But I was more interested in that elegant, saccharine voice. I stuffed my hands into my pockets and leaned against a pillar.
She was half running before she saw me.
“Oh! Might that be Thomas? Thomas Hartley?” She huffed, gasping between each word. I cocked my head a bit. Play it cool. Don’t get frozen.
The chic lady that stood before me was Susie Clarke. The girl who I considered “the angel of Haroville” since childhood. Everything about her was ritzy and lavish. From the patterned victorian dresses she donned to the gems that lined her heels. It’s a wonder none of the guys who’ve crushed on her have offered her a brooch. I’ve never liked her for her looks though. It’s always been because of how different she was. Her rich parents moved here to live a quiet life. They weren’t rude or anything, just reserved. But Susie never minded mingling with us commoners. We’d always play with each other after she was done homeschool.
I got off the pillar and feigned a look of familiarity.
“…Well I’ll be. Might you be Susie Clarke?”
“Yes, I may. Do tell stranger, would you happen to know a young
man named Thomas? He appears quite similar to you. Only a tad
“Hmm… I’m not sure. There may not be a lot of people in this
town, but I don’t know any short people named Thomas. If it’s any
help though, my name is Thomas.”
“Goodness me. It is you! A thousand sorrows for not recognizing
you immediately. Haro-you-doing?”
“Heh, it’s fine. I’m—”
Before I knew it, I was wrapped in her tight embrace. Her soft, small hands pulled me into her warm body. Her breasts cushioned my abdomen. My heart fluttered, but I did not feel shy. I felt my temples heat as I smiled.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time.” I said.
She looked up. Her pursed lips warped into a soft smile.
“Aye, same to you. My parents have kept quite busy these last few
months. In fact, they’ve tried to keep me busy as well.”
She jumped off of me.
“Come! Let us attend Maximillian’s Eatery so we may converse
“Why, certainly—woah!” The playful angel snatched my arm and led the way.
* * *
The place that Susie was referring to was Maxwell’s Diner. It was a breakfast shop a guy named Maxwell used to run. Of course, that was back when grandpa was alive. While the new owners weren’t blood related they kept the name. The doughnuts were still fresh so I couldn’t complain.
As for why Susie talked how she did? I had no idea. Her parents spoke in higher diction than the rest of us but she was by no means British. The closest she has is the French from her mother, but her dad lived in America his whole life. No, Susie just loved to marvel at British culture. I think she visited the UK once for a birthday. But was she obsessed with their diction before or after? One of the world’s great mysteries…
I pulled the cool door open for Susie and observed the outside of the building. The walls were such a brilliant shade of pink that I couldn’t help but notice them every time. The beauty wasn’t just the paint color, it was the spacing between each individual paint molecule. Some specks were whitish-pink, which were placed between the more common strawberry milk clumps of color. Even rarer than the whitish-pink were the red dots sprinkled amid the surface. The texture was pliable, spongey, feelable from a distance. Its pink corners could wrap around a wrist twice like a towel and tug. Atop the building was an aluminum cutout of a white-red checkered plate holding a coffee mug. Chuck used to get free coffee here for making that cutout.
I stepped in the warm diner and sat across from Susie. The air inside was still. Unyielding. Calm compared to the gusts outside. It was pleasant. We found cozy window seats. She smiled at me lightly.
“Aren’t you worried about Foxie?” I asked as I picked up a menu.
“Oh, he’s a feisty one. Always avoiding long hellos. I give him a
hug and try to comb his hair and what does he do? Storms
through our front gate. Poor Edna hadn’t a chance to keep him
“Man, that’s rough. But, y’know, isn’t someone going to have to
pick him up?”
“Oh, that? Hah, he’s a guard dog, he’ll be fine.”
That’s Susie for you. Scared to death one moment, happy as can be the next. I let out a laugh while browsing the breakfast options. Eggs benedict? Omelet? Grits with apple sausage? Tough call to make… which one best stimulates the mind?
“Have you decided on a meal Thomas?”
“I’m mulling over it…”
“Hah! That’s amusing. I’ve already decided what I shall
Timed to a tee, a server was making her way over to our table. Eggs benedict it is. Maybe the paprika would sharpen my perception.
“And how’d you decide so quickly?” I asked. She flashed her teeth in blithe.
“I’ve been thinking about Haroville since the moment I left.”
“Hi Thomas,” the waitress, Margaret, said.
“I haven’t seen you here in a spell. And it looks like you brought company.” She glanced at Susie and then looked back at me. A smirk formed on her lips. I need not say a word. Margaret’s been around long enough to know how we young people operate. I could almost see my cheeks grow red.
“How’s the family business Suz? That father of yours can never
seem to stop talking about bonds. Bonds bonds bonds. You know
that banking talk has always been beyond me.”
“Father is doing quite alright. It’s become less difficult for me to
understand his terminology. Though that doesn’t make it much
easier to keep track of the family wealth. I think he’s losing faith
I frowned. Mr. Clarke was a dignified man, but I could never see the same humanism in him that I saw in Chuck. Even Susie’s mom has always been supportive of her. That’s probably why she adapted to the piano so easily. I wish I tried to become an artist sooner. Maybe then my mom could have taught me before she…
“Don’t even think such nonsense, dear,” Margaret said with passion.
“If anyone can balance all that money, it’s you. I’d like to say
Mayor Johnson, but he’d donate all of it to kitty charities before
he put it in savings.”
“I’d much like to donate it all.” Susie replied, her eyes downcast.
“Life is much more carefree here than in those bustling streets
of New York. I’d tend to a pig before a car any day.”
“Hey, hey, don’t let those eyes droop now, hear?” Margaret said.
“I refuse to see you sad, especially after you’ve been gone so
long. If it makes you feel better, I’ll cut the price of your meal.
Thomas is still paying though.”
She poked me in the forehead with her pen and the two laughed at my jolt. I shook my head, roused from a daydream, and made a playful scowl at Margaret who winked at me. At least Susie was better.
“So, what can I get you two?” Margaret asked. She wore a baby blue maid outfit with a cute strawberry red ribbon on her hairband. It’s the simple things that stick out the most.
“I’ll take eggs benedict,” I said
“Side of crisp bacon. And I’ll have some coffee. Only a pinch of
sugar, half a tablespoon of maple syrup… and as much milk as
you want. No cream.”
“You realize half a tablespoon is a teaspoon yes?” Susie asked.
I shrugged wryly. “She’ll know what I mean.”
“And you doll?” Our jovial waitress asked.
“Oh, of course,” Susie started. “I’ll have quiche lorraine.
For on the go, I’ll have fried cheese biscuits and caramel
My eyes lit up at that. How could I forget Susie’s favorite food? Her mother would make bonbons whenever guests came over. When we were kids, Henry Jr, Link and I would race to see who could scarf down the most. But on Susie’s birthday it was futile; birthday girl always kept the leftovers.
“Okay. Your orders are coming right up,” Margaret said as she walked back behind the counter.
I turned to Susie. She was inspecting the bracelet she wore on her wrist.
“You haven’t eaten those in ages Susie,” I said.
“Which? The Quiche? I’ve decided to take a break from my
diet in honor of—”
“No silly. The bonbons.”
Her eyes flashed in recollection.
“You remember eating those all the way from
childhood?” I asked.
“Why, of course I do silly. They’ve always been a favorite of mine.
Mother used to eat them when she was young as well. Dessert
worthy of a princess she always told me. How elegant.”
I paused after she spoke. A familiar awkwardness began to nip at my tongue. The same kind that a child feels when he’s knocked over his mother’s porcelain vase and has to explain the mess he’s made. Did she remember the bonbons the same way I did? Or was me holding onto those childhood memories just another way to cope from the present?
Besides Susie, all my friends were gone. Gabriel was on tour most of the year with his rock band. Henry Jr. was pursuing an English degree and Link was still undecided from what he said on the phone a few weeks ago. Either way, they got to travel while I struggled with my craft. I’d hate to leave Susie, but if I didn’t finish my drawing soon my spark might fade away again.
“How long will you be able to stay in town?” I asked her.
“Oh, I know not. Father is taking the holiday off, thus he bade me
permission to visit. Likely after the Autumn Festival ends I’ll be
required back to my post. Purveyor of Wall Street.”
Susie let out a tired sigh. It sounded like the yawn of a tired puppy. She glanced out the window. This was the perfect time to say something to impress her. I put a hand to my chin, searching the letterbox of my mind for words to cheer her up. Then she whipped her head at me with a full faced smile.
“How about you, Thomas? Any exciting developments?”
That caught me off guard. I wanted to say something profound, that I was helping Chuck with his tools or I’d gone hiking with Paul. But I’ve been wholly consumed by my craft.
“Well… not really. Life has been pretty same-old same-old since
you left. I’ve been practicing more with my art. Meticulously
drawing—well, thinking more than drawing, but making an effort
to capture Mom’s style.”
“Ah, Eunice Hartley. A blessed woman. Her artisan spirit shines on
Haroville to this day.”
“Yes, my mother was something…”
The chilly winds from outside were no longer audible. Gray light from the clouds poured through the windows. Inside the diner I grew quite hot. Sweat formed on my forehead. Forearm hairs stood on end. The cold nervosity I usually felt around Susie was gone. In its place was a solemn stone, it weighed upon my chest. My hand wanted to reach for Susie’s, to feel its soft comfort. I could almost grasp it, but fear held me back.
“Thomas,” Susie said. “Lift your eyes. Eunice would be
proud of who you are. You’re insightful, you’re kind. The town
simply wouldn’t be the same without you.”
The heat was rising. I started to choke on my own throat.
“But that’s just it, isn’t it?” I said. “Haroville relies on me. I’ve
never left. Gabriel and Link and Henry Jr., they’re all out there
building their lives. Even your father has promised you a future.
My mother was the best mentor of all, and she had a life outside
this town. I didn’t, and she isn’t here to help me anymore.”
Susie’s eyes widened, but she didn’t look shocked. She looked concerned, like she was trying to see me better. To see the redness in my eyes, the tears beginning to form. She put her hand on mine.
“Tell me more about your mother.”
I took a deep breath. Then another, very deep. I inhaled through my nose, pulling in coffee-smell, furniture scent and all the micro-particles in the cool air. Would the cool air cool my hot body? And what of the particles I inhaled? What effect do millions of tiny atoms have on the body? Even if I couldn’t feel it, my insides must be having some sort of reaction to them. I exhaled, and made a hard blink. The tears decided to retreat back into their glands. Feeling a bit more calm, I met Susie’s gaze.
“You know my mom. Everyone did, even your parents. She had
a wide, peaceful aura. Something about her was magic, because
as soon as she moved here everyone was her friend. Maybe it
was her smile. Growing up I’ve never seen her without that gentle,
empathetic smile. Her eyes were always narrow, watching the
world dreamily, as if whatever she was looking at, she was looking
at it with love. I didn’t realize I wanted to draw until she was gone.
I took her for granted, and I face the consequence of that every
day, every time I pick up a pencil. Every time I think about my
Susie pressed hard on my fingers, maintaining her gaze. She’d imbue rays of positivity into me if she could. Mom would do something similar.
The last time I saw her was when she was headed to Grandpa’s funeral. Though he often came to Haroville to visit us, he lived in Philadelphia like Mom once had. That night it was pouring rain. The only thing audible other than the incessant pattering was the roaring car engine. A townsman named Tobias was going to drive Mom to a bus station a few miles away. I watched her from behind the town gate, my 9-year-old body getting pelted by rain. She sat her suitcase in the backseat. She lingered for a moment, then turned to face me. I was outside strictly against her orders—I should have been home sleeping while uncle Chuck watched me. But I didn’t need an alibi. It was a dark and stormy night and my mother was going away. That was reason enough to be scared.
I waited for her to shout, to lecture me in that rhetorical question way she always did. Instead she beckoned to me. I ran to her, hugging her in my soaked clothes. She shielded me with her umbrella. I told her not to leave because if she did something bad would happen. Perhaps it was just childhood fear. Or maybe I was precocious beyond my years. Regardless, I still felt relief when she said told me it was okay. That it was just a little rain, and she would paint a picture of grandpa when she returned. She gave me her umbrella and told me to go home and get a good night’s rest. I obeyed her command. Unbeknownst to me, halfway to their destination the car hydroplaned and veered into a tree. Paul found them two weeks later during one of his hikes. It was too late. Their bodies were bloody with glass and twigs. The town was already in a frenzy, thinking she was kidnapped in the city, but she hadn’t even made it there. The town doctor examined them and determined they could have lived had they been discovered earlier.
“Food’s here!” Margaret said, with a wide toothed smile.
My voice was caught in some miasma between chipperness and resignation.
“Ah, timely as usual.”
Susie kept her fingers wrapped around mine. I exhaled, beginning to feel some peace.
“Thank you Margaret.” Susie said, smiling.
“Of course dearie. Eat up.” She said, walking away.
* * *
“I take it my companion is enjoying his meal?”
I was eating fervently, carving my poached eggs into bits with fork and knife, skewering them to my fork along with bacon and munching it all down. Between forkfuls I’d take a bite out my english muffin drenched in warm, thick hollandaise sauce. The breakfast was absolutely scrumptious. It was the sort of meal that caused one to stop thinking completely, focusing solely on the prickly sensation atop the taste buds. A meal so magnificent that I almost didn’t hear Susie’s question. So enraptured I was, I had to let my tongue absorb the last of the static before I attempted to answer her.
“Sorry,” I said, swallowing the muffin. “Food’s too good.”
She laughed amicably.
“I see. Trouble you I shan’t during such a hearty meal.”
Her plate was aside, quiche half eaten next to a bag of cheese biscuits and bonbons. Margaret would bring the bill and an extra container momentarily.
“You’re so passionate Thomas,” Susie blurted.
“Your zest for life is powerful. An aura felt from miles away.
It isn’t aimless, it’s concentrated. I’ve admired you since
childhood. The myriad of stories you would tell, the adventures
we went on. You want to draw. But as you say, you’re a
caged bird in this town. Even if it is a beautiful town.
My heart dropped. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“You never attended university. You’ve been here all this time. I
sometimes felt guilty those years I was away, learning of the
world while you tended to gardens. But I don’t feel bad
anymore, because your passion is still with you. You’ll get your
chance Thomas. You’ll be able to travel and draw to your
I was speechless. Susie was always upbeat and optimistic. To hear that I inspired her, when her attitude is what kept me going… A glow grew inside me.
“I… thank you, Susie.”
“Aye, of course friend. I thought it pertinent to remind you of
your self worth. You musn’t let your troubles define you. You
must be defined by your rise above those troubles.”
Wordlessly, Margaret sat the bill and a container on the table. I began signing it while Susie scooped her leftovers into the container. True to her word, Margaret cut the price in half.
“Thomas, the babysitter is taking the holiday off next week and…
you know the ordeal with my parents and I. Always moving.
Keeping up appearances. Might I trouble you to watch over
sweet little Edna?”
I almost chuckled. It was quite amusing Susie didn’t ask me to watch Foxie, who was always addled by something, always abandoning his guardpost, while Edna needed a babysitter when she was the most obedient child in the world.
“Of course Susie, no trouble at all. Your sister’s so calm and
“Oh friend, I thank you. I am in your debt.”
We parted ways, Susie left to visit the townsfolk who’ve yet to hear of her return. I was heading home. Next week I’d go to Susie’s mansion to babysit Edna. Now, I was going to recapture my flow. My artist’s high.