Thunder rumbled again from the southwest.
The broad, two story house with its warm porch light might welcome him. But if a runaway had knocked on his front door long after midnight, his dad would greet the unlucky boy with a shotgun. So, Raiden turned around. Better to be harmless. Better for a gun to be pointed at his back.
The door opened behind him, and Raiden expected at least a suspicion laden question. Instead he heard a sigh. A plump, grey-haired woman in a loose, white nightgown stood there, her face turned down to the side.
“Hello ma’am. May I stay in your barn tonight? Me and my horse, Jasper. He’s tied to your paddock back there.”
She unfolded glasses and slid them over her nose, but she still avoided eye contact. Silence stretched on long enough that Raiden thought he should leave, so when she asked, “What’s your name?” he jumped a little.
He told her. She gave no sign, but backed out of the way. He didn’t know what else to do but step inside. The front room glowed golden from one table lamp and smelled of rose water. It was tidy and clean, but stacked full of knickknack curiosities like a Cracker Barrel store.
A rough voice at the top of the staircase said, “Who is it?”
“Raiden Hancock,” the woman said weakly, as if she had lost hope of being heard.
The man leaned on the handrail as he crept down the stairs. He straightened at the bottom, flicked on an overhead light, and looked Raiden over. “What’s the problem?”
“I just need—” Raiden began, but the woman broke in.
“He asked if he could stay the night in an empty bedroom,” she said. “It’s going to rain. Can he keep his horse in a stall?”
Raiden wondered if she told a lie on purpose.
The man wiped his hand over his whole face, top to bottom. “How old are you? Sixteen, seventeen?”
“Why are you out like this?”
Raiden wouldn’t answer.
“Listen, I’m calling the sheriff. Your parents are worried. Where are you from?”
“I ran away from home.”
“Why?” the woman asked.
The man glared at her. “Does it matter? Sometimes your kindness is annoying.”
“The why is, my dad planned to ship me to military school because I wouldn’t help slaughter the pigs. He already bought me a bus ticket.”
“I see,” the man said, not committing himself either way.
The woman took the man’s hand, raised it to her lips, and gave it a soft kiss.
He had not resisted any, but stared in sudden shock. “Come with me, please,” he said and gestured to a side room, a sitting room. She went in, and the man started after her, but came back. “My name’s Harold. And she’s my wife, Norma Jean. She’s a nice lady, but… she has problems. I hope you understand. Want something to drink? A soda? Glass of milk?”
Raiden shook his head no.
“Okay.” He pointed to where Raiden was standing. “Don’t go anywhere.” He slid the door closed.
Harold did the talking. Maybe he did all the talking. All Raiden heard was his voice and periods of silence.
He wandered around the front room. A vase of pink and yellow roses on the mantle piece reflected itself in the wide mirror. Photographs in gilt frames covered the walls and the upright piano, many of the pictures containing a young Harold and a blonde, curvy woman wearing tight dresses, like an old-fashioned movie star. Both of them were smiling so hard it must hurt. Her sad eyes reminded him of his own mother’s, and he had to shake off missing her already. The photos of horses grabbed his attention, tall fast horses with small men perched on top wearing caps and costumes.
The man droned on and Raiden put his ear to the door.
“We don’t know anything about him. He can’t stay in the house with us asleep. I won’t sleep at all. Your mom’s jewelry is in that bedroom. He could steal it, slip out, and we’d never see him again.” There was another short spell of silence and then the man said, “How could I forget the miscarriages? They weren’t anyone’s fault. Not yours, not mine.”
Raiden leaned away from the door and heard a sound he had been anticipating: his horse Jasper yelling. Raiden went outside and called to him and then walked to the fence. He stroked the horse’s shoulder. Jasper was thirsty and hungry. A tall horse on the inside of the paddock startled him as it stumbled close by in the dim darkness.
The woman came out, leaving the door wide open, and shuffled up to Raiden. “My husband said you could sleep in an extra bedroom, and I’ll show you where things are in the barn. But we have to phone your parents in the morning.” She avoided looking at him as before, but she’d been crying.
Raiden frowned. “Did he really say I could sleep inside the house? I’d rather stay in the barn with Jasper, if you’ll loan me a sleeping bag.”
She glanced straight at him for the first time and flinched. It lasted only a second, but Raiden felt he knew the look. It was the same his mother had given him when he decided to run away. He hadn’t said a word, and yet his mother knew.
In a mournful dove’s voice Norma Jean said, “If your parents agree, you can live here and work on our property. You can go to the school. We don’t keep pigs.” It seemed like she had more to say; instead, she rocked back and forth, her eyes glazed.
Raiden peered toward the house. Harold was standing in the open doorway, watching them. A strong breeze began thrashing the trees and the first raindrops of the storm dripped down.
She stopped rocking and said, “I don’t want you to leave.”
Mickey Hunt is old enough to receive Social Security, but he recently took a couple undergraduate literature and writing classes at the public university in Asheville, North Carolina where he lives. The Harold stories originated from photographic prompts, including a boy sitting on a pony and a woman pushing a lawnmower while wearing her nightgown, eyeglasses, and a headscarf.