Waiting

Fifth runner-up in the 2022 Great American Fiction Contest: After a mining accident, everyone waits and watches to see who’s not coming home.

Blizzard snow
(Shutterstock)

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The waiting’s what I remember the most. When the earth moves under your feet in a mining town, the only questions are how bad will it be and who’s not coming home. You spend hours, sometimes days, waiting for that answer, so yeah, waiting is what I remember most. That, and the wagon.

Oma and I were on the front porch, fleeing the steam and the smoke of Mama’s marathon of cooking. She kept saying it was still Christmas Eve, and she already had all this food to prepare, and Papa would be hungry when he got home, but mostly she was just distracting herself from the thought he might not come home, ever. Even after we opened the kitchen window, the sauerkraut still made me nauseous, so we took a break outside to watch the snow starting to fall.

We could hear the horse’s hooves on the bricks from blocks away. It was pulling an empty, creaking wagon through the neighborhood, and it was nearly to our house before we realized there was no driver. We shared an “Are you seeing this?” glance, but neither of us spoke.

The gray mare’s head bobbed up and down as she walked, nodding to us when she passed as if to say, “Hello, good day, carry on.” She wasn’t in any hurry as she strolled down the street, then turned the corner another block down, moving out of our view. We stared after the echoes, wondering where the horse had come from, where it was headed, and why the wagon was empty, until we were startled by the pastor calling up to us from the sidewalk.

“Hello, ladies,” he said. “How’re you holding up? Any word yet?”

“Nothing so far,” Oma replied. “Beau went to the mine to wait. Come inside for a cup of warmth, if you’d like.”

The pastor came up the steps and kicked the snow from his boots before taking them off inside the door. He hung his coat and sat at the kitchen table just as Mama set a cup of steaming hot tea in front of him. “We can add something stronger, if you’d like,” she offered.

“No, thank you,” he said. “I’ve still got too many stops to make. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.” He studied Mama. “How are you doing?”

Mama shrugged as she and Oma sat at the table, but she didn’t answer. I stood behind them, by the sink.

“Is there anything I can bring you?” he continued. “Anything you need?”

Another shrug. “I don’t know what that’d be. I’m sure there are others with greater needs. Especially this time of year.”

“It is particularly cruel, coming on the holiday,” the pastor agreed, then turned to me. “Still, it means both you and Beau are home for break. That must be some kind of blessing.”

“It is that,” Mama said smiling, and reached back to take my hand. Right on cue, Beau came through the back door, covered in a thin layer of snow from his walk. He could see the questions in our faces, but he just shook his head before taking off his coat and nodding to the pastor. “Nothing yet?” Mama asked.

“They still don’t know if it was a collapse or some kind of explosion,” he answered. “At least not that they’re saying. When they have an announcement, it’ll be on the local station.” He went into the family room to switch on the television, then turned the volume down as Oma moved from the table to join him.

Once Oma was out of the room, Mama turned to me with an expression I’d never seen before. “It’s odd, in a way,” she said quietly. “I always thought your Papa would die from the lung, like your Opa.”

“Either way,” the pastor said into his tea, “it always seems to be the women who are left behind.”

“We don’t know anybody’s dead yet, Mama,” I objected.

She smiled at me with her eyes, if not her mouth. “You’re absolutely right. He could come back through that door any minute now. Either that, or we’ll get the official visit.”

“Let’s pray for the former,” the pastor said.

“After everything this town’s been through, Father, do you still believe God answers prayers?”

“I do,” he said. “Do you?”

“I believe so,” Mama said. “It’s just—” and then she said something in German. I’d grown up singing Christmas carols in German, but I didn’t recognize this phrase, so I raised my eyebrows in a question. “Sometimes the answer is no,” Mama translated.

“I think your family is going to be fine,” the pastor said, “and I have others to visit. Thank you for the tea. And the company. I will be praying for you.”

“Thank you, Father,” Mama said. “God go with you.”

“And with you.”

I offered to walk him out as he put on his boots and coat. Outside, the snow was starting to pile up. Dancing flakes sparkled in the half light, and I was grateful for the bracing air. “What did Mama mean in there?” I asked. “About everything the town’s been through?”

“Your family’s been here for generations. They know the mine’s been playing out for quite a while now,” he explained. “In a year or so, it’ll be done once and for all, and then what happens to the town?”

“I hadn’t realized.”

“Nobody likes to talk about it,” he admitted, “for obvious reasons. To tell the truth, on days like this, I sometimes wish the mine had already closed.” He turned to face me. “I know you have a couple years of college left, but you need to be sure you finish. Your mama and Oma are going to need you and your brother more than ever, and that degree will mean everything.”

“I’ll do what I can, Father.”

He smiled with that beatific face they must teach them at seminary. “I know you will, child. Bless your soul.”

“And yours.”

He walked down the sidewalk until I lost sight of him behind the wall of flurries. Even though the storm was hiding the stars and the moon, there wasn’t any darkness. The snow cover and the clouds reflected all the streetlamps and Christmas decorations in an ambient glow that filled every corner, leaving no place for shadows. In the dim light, I barely recognized the neighborhood I’d seen all my life, but somehow it was still mine. It was way too uncanny for a Hallmark movie, but standing on the porch of the house where I’d grown up, watching the snow fill in the day’s tracks, I knew no matter where else I might live this would always be home.

When I finally turned around, Beau was inside the screen door. “In or out?” I asked him.

He glanced inside, then answered “Out,” and pulled the main door closed behind him, cutting off the light from inside the house. “He was right, you know.”

“About what?”

“About the women being left behind.”

“You think so?”

Beau nodded. “It’s not just at the mine. You hung out with some of the farm kids. All the small towns around here are full of farm widows.”

“You’re right. There’s a girl in my dorm from out on the coast. She says the same thing about fishing villages.”

“It’s messed up, when you think about it,” he said.

“I’m trying real hard not to right now.”

“Fair enough.” He took out a pack of cigarettes.

“Breaking training?”

He pulled one out with his lips and nodded. “Season’s done. My football career is over. I just need to graduate, so it’ll all have been worth it.”

“In that case, I’ll have one, too, please.”

“In your condition?” He offered me the pack.

I snorted. “I’m still early on. Besides—” I paused to lean into his lighter and took a deep draft. The cold air exaggerated the cloud of smoke I blew back out. “Today’s a bitch, id’nit?”

“True dat.” He nodded toward the house. “You tell them yet?”

“Jesus, God no. How’s that work? Hi, Mama. Hi, Oma. Don’t know if Papa’s dead or alive. Oh, by the way, I’m preggers. Merry Christmas!”

Beau laughed. “Well, when you put it that way.”

“I know, right?”

“So, what’re you gonna do?”

“That I don’t know,” I sighed. “I need to stay in school while I still have the scholarship. But I really don’t know how I feel about … you know.”

“Is the baby daddy still in the picture?”

My turn to chuckle.

“I see,” he said. “Maybe you could do a semester or two online.”

“Maybe have to.”

“You know I’ll do whatever I can,” he offered. “I’m done this spring.”

“I know. Thanks. This would suck a lot worse otherwise.”

We didn’t say anything for a while after that, studying the universes at the glowing ends of our cigarettes. “You know,” Beau finally said, “I’m kinda the reason Papa ended up in the mine.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“You saw all of his trophies in the display cases at the high school.”

“Yeah, so?”

“One of my college coaches let slip that Papa gave up a scholarship when Mama got pregnant with me.”

“Oh, my.” I was trying to remember how to breathe.

“I know, right?”

The wheels in my head were turning slow, but I got there eventually. “Big guy, this is not your fault.”

“I know that intellectually,” he said.

“But—?”

“Yeah. But.”

“Jeeze Louise.” I threw my arms wide. “Bring it in, Champ.”

He leaned over and wrapped me in the classic Beau hug. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“None of this is on you, moron,” I whispered back. “It’s hard enough without you carrying the sins of the world on your shoulders. Especially the ones from before you were even born. We’re gonna be okay. You know that, right?”

“I do.”

We stood there hugging as the night settled in and the snow kept coming down all around us, filling the air and screening out the rest of the world. Eventually I felt him pull even tighter, and I started to object when he shushed me.

“You hear that?” he asked.

“My ribs cracking?”

“No, hush.” He pulled his head up. “Listen.”

It took a moment, but yeah, there it was, distant and barely audible. At first, I thought it was just the wind, but it kept getting louder. It was massive and lonely all at the same time, as though a choir of a thousand souls was falling, each member sinking into their own separate well of despair.

“It’s the crowd outside the mine,” Beau said.

“Oh God,” I whispered, and then the sound moved inside the house. We ran in to find Oma still on the couch, knees drawn up and arms around her legs, keening at the television. Beau sat beside her and wrapped his arms around her as she rocked back and forth, whispering to herself in German. I sat next to Mama to ask what Oma was saying, but that’s when the knock on the door came.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. At first, I thought it was just the wind, but it kept getting louder. It was massive and lonely all at the same time, as though a choir of a thousand souls was falling, each member sinking into their own separate well of despair.

    “A choir of a thousand souls was falling, each member sinking into their own separate well of despair.”

    Powerful! This line is the heart of the story.

  2. Is there an end to this story? I seem to get to the line ” I sat next to Mama to ask what Oma was saying, but that’s when the knock on the door came.” and it ends.

    Thanks,

  3. Very well written story, Mr. Sandefur. I like your descriptive and conversational style of story telling. Life more often than not, doesn’t have happy endings. My favorite paragraph is the same one Will mentioned here. Very powerful.

    Love the artwork you selected for the opening image. It’s very Bob Peak-ish!

  4. At first, I thought it was just the wind, but it kept getting louder. It was massive and lonely all at the same time, as though a choir of a thousand souls was falling, each member sinking into their own separate well of despair.

    This rings. My favorite

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