Authors: Arthur Mitchell
It's open and lit. Sadie waits just outside the entrance, her ears perked up and listening for signs of anyone inside.
When she's certain it's empty, she goes inside. There's little else in the building except the mutilated wreckage of her old car.
Her jaw drops when she eyes it in the light for the first time. Half the windshield is gone, and only a splintered half remains.
From there, the deformed metal mass barely resembles the light blue car she vaguely remembers driving. Unnatural ridges rise beneath the tarp covering the lower half.
Tensing, she creeps closer to it, stretching her hand out toward the driver's side window – the only glass left fully intact in the visible heap. Through the darkness, she gazes at the glove box, slightly ajar.
Why do I feel so drawn to this? What's in there?
Sadie locks her fingers around the cool handle and pulls. It doesn't budge.
A big hand on her shoulder almost makes her go through the roof. She spins around with a whimper.
“Hey. I saw you weren't in the house and came to check up on you. Need some help?”
“I'm fine. It's just hard to get this door open.” Heart pounding, she straightens her dress, one of the few new outfits Brax has retrieved for her in town.
Nudging her aside, he grips the handle and yanks it open. The door pops with a resounding blast, like a shot going off.
“Do you want me to take a look? It might not be safe in there...” The rancher points to several jagged strips near the passenger side, where the top of the seat has been shredded by metal.
“I'll be okay. If you want to be my safety buddy, I can tolerate that. But I don't need you to do everything for me.”
The words come out more harshly than they should. Frowning, he steps aside and allows her access.
His body language says he's poised to jump in at the least sign of trouble.
Sadie arches down and crawls into the mangled interior. He passes her a hand held LED flashlight before she's all the way in.
Small flecks of glass and metal reflect the bluish haze. It's a miracle none of them ended up lodged in her body.
She focuses near the glove box, reaching deep to push down on the handle's buttons.
It falls without much effort on broken hinges. The noise makes her jump.
A small film of shredded plastic rests near the corner of the glove box. She picks it up and grimaces.
The plastic is coated in a white dust that seems familiar – and not in a welcoming way.
Nausea runs through her, instantly departing when she releases the filmy sheet.
She lets it drop to the floor, pushing it beneath the broken seat. There's something more underneath the old structure.
Straining, she reaches deeper, and pulls out a slim black wallet. Sadie turns quickly, feeling the sweat pooling on her brow. Her hand stuffs it into her pocket, away from any prying eyes.
I'll review this by myself. I need to see what's inside before anyone else does.
Brax is standing near the open garage door, leaning on a wooden post. He turns when he hears her footsteps behind him.
“Well? Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Seems to be empty,” she says with a sigh. “Let me know if your men find anything else. I'm not sure what else to do with this piece of junk.”
“If the insurance info doesn't turn up, I know a guy who will junk it for cash. Otherwise, I can get my mechanic, Pete, to try piecing this thing back together. Work has been kind of sparse for him anyway.
Think it over and let me know what you'd like to do.”
She nods and walks back to the house with him. Halfway there, he stops, gazing up at the clear sky.
It's a gorgeous prairie night. Countless stars and distant galaxies dance above them, as if the heavens have decided to lower their shields to lost eyes.
The calm points of light banish the hot nausea lingering since she left the wreck. The stars are distant and harmless, just like her mysterious past.
Sadie closes her eyes and exhales slowly, turning to meet his eyes.
“It's so beautiful out here. You're a lucky man, Brax. I can't be totally sure if I've seen stars like this or not...but I don't think so. Either way, it's like seeing it for the first time.”
Her face turns hot. Just being so close to him alone is intense, and it's making her trip all over her words.
Brax smiles. “You don't need to explain anything, beautiful. Life out here sure has its advantages.
Gotta say, it's lonely sometimes. It's nice to have a woman around the farm for once.”
She looks down. His words raise her temperature a few more degrees. She hopes he doesn't see the redness caressing her cheeks.
“I love most of my men like brothers. But being around the guys all the time gets a little old. All the women in this town are mostly wed already or too young for my tastes. Don't worry – even you're a little far down on the youth scale.”
Surprised, she looks ups. “I'm not that young. I'm twenty-three. You're not old enough to be my father or anything.”
Brax tips his head back and laughs.
“True enough. I'm old enough to be your big brother, though. Don't think the men would look too kindly on me hitching up with a lost little girl we found on the side of the road neither.”
Her cheeks burn, this time with frustration. She looks up into the sky for a few more seconds to recover her poise.
We'll just see who's lost and little, Mister Weldon. I'll prove you wrong as soon as I go to work
A yawn disrupts the serenity. Sadie covers her mouth, realizing how tired she is.
They finish walking back to the house together. Brax wishes her a good night and they retreat to their rooms.
In the darkness, she undresses and switches on the lone lamp in the guest room. She reaches to her discarded dress and plucks out the slim wallet.
Holding her breath, the leather flaps open in her hands. She exhales sharply as it comes apart, bracing for whatever secrets are inside.
Most of the leather and plastic sleeves are empty. She digs out a few business cards from restaurants and an auto repair shop, unremarkable places strewn across Minneapolis, Mankato, and everything in between.
She imagines the snowy Midwestern state, not so different from the Dakotas. There's a flimsy vision of a long hill coated in thick snow and a pink sled.
A little girl climbs aboard and screams as it rampages down the slope. When she reaches the bottom near an old garage, her laughter stops.
An angry voice inside curses out a subordinate. The trembling adolescent boy answers back, his words garbled.
The words are nonsense, but they're emotional enough to get an idea about what's happening. The young man is terribly sorry for some offense committed against his unforgiving elder.
The memory disappears. She finishes her survey of the wallet, surprised that there's no driver's license or credit cards inside.
Aside from the business cards, she recovers forty two dollars in cash, mostly wadded up tens and ones stuffed into the pouch. Everything goes into her night stand's drawer.
No answers here. Just more questions. What is this place my mind is trying to hard to remember?
Disappointed, she looks at the time on the small alarm clock and forces herself to go to sleep. Brax wants her up early tomorrow, and she can't disappoint him on her very first day.
All night, she dreams about a cold dilapidated house somewhere in a Minnesota suburb. Intoxicated figures of every race and gender come and go through the rickety screen door, hard faced souls doing time in purgatory.
A tall young man shoots her poison looks as he sits at a kitchen table. He gets up to answer the door each time a new person arrives, shuttling the visitors to large boxes on the table. When their worn bills pass into his hands, he reaches into the containers and hands them small plastic bags filled with different kinds of dark mush.
Eventually, the others disappear. She's left with the tall man.
He stares down at her. His lips peel back, barking a command that's silent in her dreams. The order makes her skin crawl, even though she can't hear it.
II: Hard Labors
Sadie wakes in a cold sweat. A dark blue light streams in through her room, and the clock on the night stand is clanging loudly.
She picks up a pair of jeans and a shirt before running across the hall for a quick shower. Downstairs, Brax is finishing up his breakfast when she comes down, a small pile of sausage links with oatmeal.
“I left something on the stove for you,” he says. “Enjoy it and get out there. Show me what you've got, beautiful.”
She grins as he disappears out the door. Sadie rushes through breakfast, eager to impress.
Later, she's in the main barn with Dinkie, a middle aged man with bushy hair and a sizable beer belly.
He smiles crudely as soon as he sees her.
“Now, you gotta make sure this switch is all the way off. Lever's a little rusty. Here, give it a good pull.” Dinkie steps back, exposing a large control panel that looks like its best days were decades ago.
Grasping the big metal rod, she tries to follow his lead. But the lever doesn't budge without applying tremendous force.
“Damn!” Sadie yelps, lifting herself off the ground in an effort to pin it to the slot in the wall.
It moves haltingly. Her muscles burn, and she's nearly at her limit after it's closed only half its distance.
Finally, it locks in place. She watches the water meters spin.
“That's the right attitude,” her instructor jokes. “Make sure it doesn't pop out of place too. It's been known to do that. The buttons here are for different troughs. Did Brax give you the watering schedule?”
She pulls a small black notebook from her pocket and waves it in his face. Dinkie glowers.
“Fair enough. Let me know if there's anything else you need.”
Sadie watches him walk toward the opening at the back of the barn. He doesn't go without turning one last time – probably trying to catch a good look at her rear. She holds her ground, sending his lecherous gaze away with a smirk.
Bastard. Looks like making friends here won't be easy. I don't see any other women working here.
By noon, it feels like she's been lifting weights for hours. Muscles and joints deep inside her body protest, but she keeps moving from trough to trough, fishing out stray leaves and other debris just as she's supposed to.
When she gets back to the barn in the early afternoon, there's a small commotion. Dinkie and another man are shouting. They stare at the switch, raised well out of its resting place.
Several of the meters are going wilder. The skinnier man lets out a stream of curses and runs, heading for the flooding trough.
“Shit, woman! Look at this.” Eyes narrowed, he waves her closer with a snarl. “You've wasted more than a hundred gallons. I
you the lever gets out of place! You were supposed to watch this.”
Her bottom lip trembles. Sadie tenses and holds her ground.
“Maybe if the fucking equipment around here weren't fifty years old, I wouldn't have had that problem. When he said automated pumps, I figured they actually worked without all this manual intervention.”
“Don't blame this on the boss. This is
fuck up, girl.” He turns, forcing the lever back into place with a quick rush of brute strength. “Brax outta know better than to send a woman out on a man's job.”
She turns her smoldering hatred away from the portly farmhand to see Brax standing in the shadows.
He strides forward, arms crossed, a halo of sweat between his brow and the brim of his tall black hat.
“Both of you. Dinkie, if I catch you insulting a lady and a fellow worker here like that again, you're gonna step into my office for a talk. And by talk, I mean ass kicking.”
“Sorry, boss. I was just trying to do right by the ranch. Least I don't have to pay for what's been spilled here today.” He rubs his hands together nervously, staring at the indentations on the cement floor.
They stare at each other. It's obvious the fat man is testing a tenuous, longstanding boundary.
“Good thing I reserve cash just for troubles like this. That's a businessman's job,” Brax says. “You've been here long enough to know that shit happens every so often. Go on, now, and get back to the fields.”
“Sure thing,” he says, lifting his eyes for one last sardonic wink as he staggers by her.
“And you...it's your first day, so I'm going to cut you some slack. I can tolerate honest mistakes, Sadie. But I'm not putting up with shifting blame from a girl who should know better. Sure, the equipment around here's a little worn...but it does its job when it's used right.”
“Sorry. I was just trying to do my job. I didn't know some of these guys were such kids.”
“If they talk to you like that again, find me. I'll deal with it.”
Squinting at the evening light behind his silhouette , she tries to temper the adrenaline surging in her veins. If he hadn't shown up, Dinkie would've been right in line for a jaw cracking slap.
“I can defend myself, Brax. I've dealt with bullies before...”
I know I have. I just can't remember where or when.
“It takes some time getting used to these men. Some of them have been working here before my dad passed, and it took years to win their respect. I'm the boss now. Keeping the peace is part of my job, but if everybody keeps their nose clean, that part's easier and I can concentrate on everything else. Nobody gets a pass – I don't care how beautiful they are, beautiful.”
She presses her hands into fists, digging them into the sides of her jeans. The tears are coming at the corners of her eyes.
I can't do this. I'm not going to cry in front of him. I need to hold steady.
“Why don't you take the rest of the day off? It hasn't been a total disaster...just one trough flooded.
Sounds like you need more time to rest, anyway.” He moves to the control panel and checks it.
“Okay.” Pivoting on her heels, she marches back into the open, praying she doesn't encounter anyone else between the work buildings and the house.