Short Fiction ~ Susan E. Rogers
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
Mick Nolan didn’t think he had ever been so nervous in his entire sixty-eight years. Not when he boarded the plane in Dublin at age twenty-two to leave Ireland for good. Not the day he started the construction job in Atlanta, a brawny greenhorn with a brogue nobody could understand. Not even twelve years later when he signed the mortgage for eighteen thousand dollars on the seventy acre watermelon farm a few miles from Gainesville, Florida. He stood with his thumbs hooked in his pockets and checked the arrivals board for the tenth time. The flight was due to land in eight minutes.
The phone call from his cousin Mary in Dublin replayed in his head.
Maggie’s gone, Mick, God rest her soul. Awful troubles for the girl. She’s only twelve, you know. I’ve had her with me for two weeks now, but I’ve got my own six to care for and there’s not much left over. I can’t keep her, Mick, I just can’t.
The men’s room was only a few steps from where he waited. His stomach churned and his hands trembled as he turned on the faucet to wash them. He studied himself in the mirror. His hair was a mass of soft white waves that had framed his face since he was thirty. Wrinkles circled his eyes and whispered his age. An old man about to father a twelve year old.
He had no experience with children except his own nieces and nephews and that was over fifty years before. He’d lived alone since he came to America, set in his ways after all these years. How could a life-long bachelor be able to give this one what she needed? Especially after all she’d been through and a whole ocean away from everything she knew. Mick shook his head. It was only right – the girl was family, after all. They would figure it out together. He was her last hope.
He wet his palms and ran them over his head to smooth down his hair. At least he could look presentable. He turned off the taps and reached for the paper towels.
The public address system announced the flight from Dublin had arrived. Mick took a deep breath and walked to stand near the bottom of the escalator. Butterflies danced jigs in his stomach. Maybe he should have had a shot of whiskey to fortify his nerves at the airport bar. No, that wouldn’t do. A two hour drive home was ahead of him. Besides, he had given up all but a nip before bed, strictly medicinal, to help him sleep. His tongue felt like sand as he ran it over his teeth. He reached in his pocket for one of the peppermints he always carried and popped it in his mouth.
Two figures at the top of the escalator drew his attention. A flight attendant held the hand of a tall, young girl. A skinny thing with braids and a freckled porcelain complexion, she held tight to a pink plush rabbit. She was the very image of her grandmother, his own younger sister Alice, at that age. Mick recognized the blue and green plaid skirt of the convent school even after all these years. Her shoulders in the white cardigan slumped as her bowed head watched the moving steps beneath her shoes. At that moment, her sad green eyes looked up into his gaze.
Gracie raised her head and her glance met the eyes of the wrinkled old man standing at the foot of the escalator. Instantly, she recognized her mother’s face haloed in the thicket of white hair. The same laughing blue eyes and delicate upturn at the end of his nose had complimented the strawberry gold of her mother’s wavy mane. She bit her bottom lip as her mother’s words came back to her.
Not to worry, pet. I’ll always be here with you, Gracie, no matter what.
The past month squeezed hard on Gracie’s heart. She barely thought of anything else – her mother dead and her whole world shredded to bits. At first, they sent her to live with her grandfather, but after the broken nose two weeks into it, the priest had her removed and brought to Cousin Mary’s. The ruckus in that house – sharing the bed with three little cousins and somebody always coming or going – only added to Gracie’s confusion. She was used to being alone and cried each night until sleep rescued her. Brothers and sisters might have been nice, but she was too old to learn to be part of a family now.
Her breath sucked in with a catch. The nice woman squeezed her hand and smiled down at her. Gracie held on tightly. She knew she had to go with that old man, to live with him because nobody else wanted her. A tear dripped onto her shoe. She swiped her nose with the back of her hand and squeezed her rabbit tighter, the only constant friend she’d had through this ordeal.
They came to the end of the escalator and Gracie lifted her foot high to step off. She saw the old man nod. The nice woman guided her to him and gave her shoulders a gentle nudge. Stopped three feet away, Gracie didn’t move. Mick crouched down with his hands on his knees, his eyes on a level with hers.
“Hello, Gracie. I’m your Uncle Mick and I’m pleased to meet you.”
The softness of his tone and the cadence of his speech were the echo of her mother’s own voice. Gracie shuffled one step forward. Mick held out a peppermint and she slowly reached for it. He smiled and she lunged forward to loop her arms around his neck. Hanging on with all her strength, she sobbed into his shoulder as he hugged her back and crooned in her ear.
“Not to worry, pet. I’m here with you now, Gracie, no matter what.”
Susan E. Rogers lives in St. Pete Beach, Florida, retired from a Social Work career in Massachusetts. Retirement was a catalyst for beginning her life-long ambition to write. Her other interests include genealogy and psychic spirituality, and she often twists these into her writing. She has written and collaborated on numerous genealogical articles. She self-published her first book ‘Uncovering Norman’ in 2018 about her own psychic experiences. Since 2020, her short fiction has been published in anthologies and has appeared in several literary magazines. You can visit her author website at www.susanerogers.com and social media pages on Facebook and Twitter.