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Nancy Chappelle Nancy Chappelle
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A Sandhills Journey part2


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She had a friend.

Part 2 of a Sandhill Journey


I gasp, trying to wrap my mind around the gambit of memories and emotions.  The similarities between this stranger and my Steve were uncanny.  I raced through all my memories of Steve.  He had been the oldest of six children.  He had one sister and she was the baby of the family.  I had always hung out at his house because he had to watch his brothers and sister.  Steve began again….The stranger beside me spoke again.


“When my family moved to North Carolina close to Camp Lejune the Marines seemed the next logical step.  My Mother worked on base as a nurse.  Naturally, I was in Jr ROTC and on to Officer ROTC in college.  My last year of college I enlisted and upon graduation I shipped out to the Middle East.”  Realizing he was going on and on Shawn turned more toward me, “Here I am doing all the talking.  I am sure you are tired of hearing about me.  Tell me something about yourself.  Where are you from?”


Being in the hot seat, feeling a momentary rush of embarrassment I sputtered to answer his question, “My earliest memories are farm life in Nebraska.  At the beginning of grade school, we move to Missouri to take over my grandfather’s farm.  We lived on a farm throughout my childhood on into my teen years.  Guess that makes me a country girl.   Being an only child though makes farm life a very lonely kind of life.  No close neighbors to hang out with just my horse.”  Hoping he would be satisfied with my answer, I turned my attention back to the road.


“Didn’t you have any friends?” the stranger asked. Disappointed my answer was not enough information, “A few, some I only saw at school.  Others came and went depending on the season.  My best friend was my horse.”  Remembrance turned up the corners of my mouth as I thought of my beloved Cinnamon.  She had been the best kind of friend. I had made some of my most treasured memories with that best friend.  


Shawn leaned forward trying to ascertain the faraway look on my face.  He smiled a reciprocation response as if being able to read my memories.  “So boys didn’t come into the picture until later huh?” Shawn inquired. A rush of warmth raced up my neck.  I felt my face contort with embarrassment.  For the life of me, I could not understand why I felt this way.  My first thought was to crawl under my seat and hide.  Why did this stranger have such an effect on me?  Shawn watched me waiting for me to respond.


“When did you begin to think about boys instead of your horse?”  Shawn inquired impatiently. I stared at him dumbfounded as if I did not comprehend the question.  I was in a dream, the age-old dream of being naked in class without your homework.  “Well…Well, ohm, I stuttered, “I thought about boys a lot even when riding my horse.” Lowering my head in embarrassment at my confession, I continued my character defense.  “The chance to hang out with a boy in the traditional sense of the word came much later on.  My parents were old fashioned in the “Me dating department.”  I stated as if pleading my innocence to a jury.  


The corners of Shawn’s mouth curled in a half smile.  I could not set still, fidgeting hoping I would discover some magical way to shrink and hide under my seat.  The smirk grew on his face, half understanding and half amusement.  Shawn turned slightly his seat leaning closer. Noticing movement in my peripheral sight, I saw him shifting towards me.  Shawn reached out and placed his hand on my shoulder. His touch felt electrical, warmth spread from my shoulder thru out my body.  The touch sent my brain whirling with sensory memory sensations.  His touch, his smile, his smell, those eyes and the timber of his voice why my body was and mind reacting so viscerally to this total stranger.  


As Shawn put his hand on my shoulder, leaning closer I could hear him inhaling deeply getting ready to continue the interrogation.  I shrugged slightly hoping to dislodge from his touch.  “So, tell me who was your first puppy love, if you can remember back that far?” I chuckled nervously hoping to shift the magnifying glass to some other poor subject.  


Shawn took his hand away from my shoulder.  He turned back in his seat taking both hands running them down the top of his thighs as if preparing to face the jury himself.  Leaning his head against the side window looking up at the night sky as if trying to pull this memory from some distant heavenly vault, righting himself once again, repeating the straightening of his jeans he began to tell me his story.  


A small smile and a far away little boy look on his face he said, “She was a little country girl,” pausing just a moment leaning out to catch my eye he continued. “She liked to ride her horse as much as you did.  Little on the short side, blonde hair and “Devil my care” blue eyes, and “Kiss me” full lips,” his smile deepened with his admission.  


I glanced at Shawn noticing how his smile had melted years away, returning his demeanor to the eleven years old boy he spoke about.  Hunched shoulders, fidgeting in his seat he pretended to straightened his shirt and began again. “Eleven year old boys have discovered the visual wonders of girls and woman, but just haven’t quite figured out what to do with it all.  So being able to hang out with a girl who liked to do boy stuff was a slice of heaven.  Johanna was the perfect girl for the eleven year old me.”  Shawn returned to searching the night sky out of the car window.


My anxiety grew as the silence filled the car; anticipation overtook me waiting for the next awkward question to come my way.  I kept my eyes forward, aimlessly watching the dotted line disappear.  What was he going to ask me next?  Shawn righted himself, “Johanna was one of the only constancy in my life.  My Dad being in the military I never knew when he left if he would come home.  My Mother had long ago retreated within herself.  Mom worked long hours and relied on me to keep things in line.  Many times, I felt I never got to be a kid.  When I could escape the Johanna, I could be eleven.  If my brothers and sister were around Johanna naturally became the Mother Hen.  I could relax and not be in control.  Johanna was always there for me.” Shawn’s voice resonated with emotion.  


For the next hour, Shawn continued to tell me story after story of his first love.  As he spilled out his stories, many of the details began to prick at the cobwebs of my memories.  The timber of his voice seemed to vibrate along my spine making me tingle from head to toe.  Memories flashed before my mind like an old-fashioned kaleidoscope. Movie images of Steve and all the fun times we spent together.  With each story, my mind seemed to find a mirrored memory of its own.  The road blurred before me, in response, I shook my head trying to clear the cobwebs.  In the distance, I spotted a road sign coming out of the darkness.  “Elsmere 11 miles” A useless piece of trivia leaped into my brain.  Elsmere, NE a ghost town or at least by the US Postal Services standards.  Elsmere had no post office, no zip code and not listed on the county maps.  The only government department that recognized the town was the DMV and their computers would even argue about that.  My eyes grew blurry again.  “Thump, Thump, Thump!” was the methodical noise of the grooved concert at the side of the highway.  I jerk my head up, instantly yanked the wheel toward the center of the road.  


Drawing in a deep breath, and a shudder I refocused my attention back on the road.  Twanging country songs played softly, an occasional swish-swack of the wipers on the windshield were the only sounds reaching my ears.  After miles of desolate highway and rolling hills now gave way to four streetlights along the highway.  At the edge of this swatch of civilization were two signs.  The first sign warned of the reduced speed “40 MPH”.  The second sign announced the name of this forgotten town “Elsmere” in smaller letters “unincorporated”.  Underneath one of the streetlights was a phone booth, a gravel lot preceding a tin-sided roadhouse the only features visible for this ghost town.  I slowed the car to abide the new speed limit.  I realized Shawn was not talking.


“Hey Dude did you fall asleep on me or what?”  I reached across to nudge Shawn.  My hand hit the back of the seat.  Baffled, I felt up and down the seat in disbelief.  I swerved into the gravel lot coming to a stop in a cloud of dust.  Turning in my seat frantically searching for the person who had been seated next to me for the last 3 hours.  I looked behind the seat, and then under the seat hoping he had magically shrank and was hiding from me.   I turned to look back out into the night hoping my brain would give me an answer.  Absently I began to replay the last 3 hours.  I had stopped and picked up a stranger named Shawn.  The moment I had looked into these stranger eyes, I felt something old and comfortable.  His eyes, his smile, his voice and so many more things seemed to evoke a deep long forgotten response I could not explain.  Who was this stranger?  I told myself it could not be Steve.  Steve had died years ago in service to our country.


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