Old Mr. Isaac Strickland clicked off the lights, shut his rickety front door, walked across the porch and down the path to an old tire planted with petunias — 41 steps. Tilting his hat to block the sun, he set out toward the courthouse, swatting aside beggartick and Queen Anne’s lace with his cane.
By the time he reached a drainage ditch, he conceded that something was wrong. Normally it took him 1,056 steps to reach the ditch, but today he’d counted off 1,267. Mr. Isaac pondered and gazed at Herefords grazing a nearby pasture. Last night he’d knocked his bunion against the stove while chasing a raccoon out of the kitchen. This morning his big toe looked red and swollen, shortening his stride considerably. Worry stirred but the July sun was hot, so he walked on. Almost two more miles to go, though only heaven knew how long that distance would stretch today.
The gravel road turned to asphalt, and he soon reached the sign for the old Baptist church. Ever since he’d reached his full height at fourteen and started carrying eggs or a pail of field peas into town to sell, 2,641 steps had taken him to the church sign. Today it took 3,169. He hoped nobody else noticed. His neighbors seldom hurried, and they had always understood he couldn’t help the distances occasionally changing, but he hated to inconvenience people. Maybe tonight he’d visit Mr. Bryant, who charmed off warts with a notched hickory twig. Might work on bunions too.
When Mr. Isaac finally reached the brick courthouse, he sat down on a stone bench shaded by a magnolia tree, nodded at some other fellows and mopped his face with a handkerchief. His steps from farmhouse door to courthouse curb had gone from 5,136 to 6,112. He figured the extra steps increased the distance from just under two and a half miles to over three.
His friend Johnny scuttled over and sat beside him. “How come you’re late today?”
“Bunion got all red and angry.”
“Bunions’re bad news.” Johnny contemplated the poky courthouse square. “Miss Ora came by a bit ago. Complained it took her longer to mow her yard this morning. You reckon other folks’ll notice?”
They went inside to the water fountain, returned to their posts and ate the cheese sandwiches Mr. Isaac had brought. The sit-down eased Mr. Isaac’s toe, and both old men dozed off. Door slams woke them. Four people were getting out of a crew cab truck. The one in a suit looked angry; the others wore hard hats and Day-Glo vests. Juggling rolls of blueprints, they stormed through the courthouse doors.
“Looks like they all got burrs up their butts,” Johnny observed.
Mr. Isaac squinted at writing on the truck. “What’s that say?”
“Moreland Engineering,” Johnny read. “That bunch building the highway to the rocket plant property.”
Mr. Isaac clenched up a little. North of town, the feds were building a new highway that paralleled his own walk into town. They planned to use it for hauling equipment to a rocket plant due to be built a few miles away. He always figured — hoped, actually — he’d be safely dead by the time that plant was built, if ever, and distances would permanently stabilize.
The two men gossiped until the engineers slammed out the courthouse doors yelling at the Chancery Clerk, who’d walked them out. She seemed close to tears, probably from trying to explain why both their maps still showed the same dimensions, but neither matched the surveyor’s measurements of the land today.
“They’re being awful rude,” Johnny said. “Reckon you ought to tell ’em what’s going on?”
Mr. Isaac sighed. At his age, the last thing he wanted was botheration, but the Chancery Clerk had always been nice to him. And times were changing. He rose, walked over and plucked at the sleeve of the man’s suit. “’Scuse me, sir. Are you having problems with your distances measuring longer today?” The man didn’t bother to answer.
Mr. Isaac had dreaded the day he’d crunch up against these new, technology-ridden times when everything demanded logical explanations. It looked like that day had arrived.
He followed the engineers toward their truck. “Sir, I think I can put this thing right if you’ll help me out. My bunion was bothering me today. Shortened my stride so it took me more steps to walk into town. That made the distance longer.”
“I’m busy,” the man said.
Mr. Isaac persisted. “If y’all want to get right back to work, I could start walking home and you could follow me. When I’ve gone the right number of steps, I’ll stop and you can drive me the rest of the way home. Never tried that before, but it might work.”
“Whole town’s batshit crazy,” the man muttered and slammed his door.
“That’s as may be.” Mr. Isaac put one hand on the open window. “But I might could solve your problem.”
“The old guy just wants a ride home,” another man said. “We’re driving around in circles anyway.” He got out and jumped in the truck bed.
“Well, first you need to follow me while I walk for…” Mr. Isaac calculated the steps he’d need to get up his front path… “5,095 steps, then pick me up.”
All along the slow way home, the man in the suit complained at Mr. Isaac out the truck window, but then picked him up and let him out at the petunia tire. Just as Mr. Isaac’s feet touched the ground, one of the hardhats answered his cellphone. He listened a moment and announced, “Measurements look fine now. Musta been a glitch with the GapGun optics.”
The truck turned around and roared off. Mr. Isaac blew out a breath. No harm done this time. Maybe tomorrow he’d stay home to let his toe recover completely. Upsetting the engineers once was kinda fun, but doing it twice wouldn’t be right.
Laura F. Sanchez lives and writes in New Mexico, but she grew up in a small southern town that was remarkably accepting of personal oddity. Her previous publications include non-fiction works on computer graphics and construction, writing for regional periodicals, along with the mystery Killer Miracle and the YA novel Freaking Green.