Pickles

Fiction By LoriAnn // 5/11/2010

 

Alex was running. Running late, running behind, running out of time…in short, she needed to be at Jean’s Diner pronto. She nearly tripped over a bulging crack in the sidewalk and regretted her decision to wear the flip-flops today—tennis shoes would have been so much easier to run in.
Then again, she hadn’t planned on being late.
Alex was supposed to be picking up Jean’s cat for a weekend of pet sitting, in order to earn the ten dollars she needed to buy the newest SuperDud[e] CD. In fact—Alex glanced at her watch and dodged a kid on a tricycle—she was supposed to have picked up Pickles three and a half minutes ago. If only her perfectionist mother knew…
Alex turned the last corner and saw the diner, in all of its retro glory; the yellow lights inside glowing a greasy welcome against the gathering dusk. Hurrying up the concrete steps and pushing open the door, she winced at the overly bright sound of the electronic bell.
“You’ve got to replace that thing, Jean,” she called over the counter, waving at the few customers who lingered over a malt or burger. They were all people she knew—in a small town like Waynesboro, strangers were high profile and highly rare.
“What’s wrong with it?” Jean came out of the kitchen, wiping his enormous hands on a blue-checked apron. “It tells me when there’s a customer here: I’m happy.”
“Yeah, but it sounds like a tornado siren going through puberty. What’s wrong with a real bell?”
Jean shrugged. “Nothing,” he said with a toothy grin. “It would probably add to the authenticity anyway.” Jean and his wife May had bought the diner ten years ago, and were constantly renovating. They wanted it to feel like the “real deal”, a genuine Route 66-era diner complete with records on the wall, a jukebox in the corner, and chrome trim.
“Sorry I’m late. Is Pickles ready?” Alex looked over Jean’s shoulder into the kitchen, where she could hear burgers sizzling on a grill. Her mouth watered—Jean’s Diner had the best burgers anywhere.
Jean caught her glance. “He is,” he said, “But I think he can wait long enough for you to have a burger. On the house.”
Alex shook her head. “That’s ok, Jean; you guys are already paying me for watching him.”
Jean put up one meaty hand. “Nope,” he grinned. “I insist.”
Thirty seconds later, Alex was biting into a juicy burger, grilled to perfection and garnished with an extra slice of cheddar cheese, just the way she liked it. “Um,” she moaned in appreciation. Jean grinned and plunked an icy soft drink down in front of her before wiping down the counter with a damp rag.
“Pickles is in the back when you’re done,” he told her. “Just come around to the kitchen door—I don’t want him shedding all over the diner.”
Alex nodded, and settled in to finish her burger.
 
“Now you be good for Alex, you hear me?” Jean poked a sausage-like finger through the bars on the front of Pickles’ cat carrier. The black cat purred and rubbed his head against Jean’s hand, completely ignoring his words.
Alex held out her hands for the carrier. “Really, Jean. It’s ok—it’s not like I’m taking him off to China or Mars or something.”
The big cook smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, I know.” Reluctantly, he placed the carrier in Alex’s arms. “See you Monday?”
“Monday,” Alex agreed, restraining a grin. “Have a good time, Jean.”
He groaned. “Sure. As good a time as you can have at a knitting convention.” May was a compulsive knitter, turning out afghans and mittens by the dozen.
“I thought you were going to a car expo while you’re there.”
The short-order chef nodded. “Yeah, but I have to meet her for dinner every night and meet all her knit-wit friends.”
Alex cracked up. “Knit-wits? That’s great—have you told that one to May?”
He looked scandalized. “No, and don’t you tell her either. I like my comfy bed, thank you, and would prefer not to sleep on the couch for the next six years.”
Still giggling, Alex turned away, letting Pickles’ carrier hang down at her side. “Bye, Jean. Be good—and thanks for the blackmail!”
She jogged off into the gathering darkness, glancing up at the storm clouds that hung low in the sky, heavy with rain. “We’re in for a long night,” she told Pickles, who meowed in response. “Weatherman says there’s severe storms coming in tonight—and you know what that means.”
She shuddered and cast another uneasy look at the sky. “Power outages, that’s what that means.”
Alex lived on the outskirts of Waynesboro, in an enormous, turn-of-the-century mansion on Hoffman Lane. Her parents had bought the house eight years ago, when Alex’s youngest sister was born, and they were still finding forgotten nooks and crannies shoved into the dark corners under stairs and between rooms. The house sat back from the road, shaded by half a dozen red maple trees—old giants with smooth limbs and leafy tops that turned lustrous shades of yellow in the fall.
Pickles’ carrier banged into Alex’s legs all the way back from the diner, and the cat was making some very threatening noises by the time she hurried up the front walk. The sky was positively grim by now, and there was a low rumbling of thunder to the west. As she reached the front door, the first fat raindrops slapped down on the sidewalk.
“Alex?” her mother’s voice echoed through the foyer as the door—a heavy wooden affair with brass fittings—thudded shut. “Supper’s almost ready.”
Alex set the cat carrier down and slipped out of her flip-flops, wiggling her bare toes against the cool wooden floor. “I had a burger at Jean’s,” she called back.
At the end of the hall, her mom’s head appeared around the corner of the door that led into the kitchen. She was frowning. And when Patricia Keegan frowned, someone had better duck.
“You ate early?”
“Not that early,” Alex defended herself, pointing at the grandfather clock in the hall. “It’s after six.”
Mrs. Keegan shook her head. “I don’t suppose it’s a big deal—it’s only leftovers tonight. But please don’t do that again, Alexis. You know how important having dinner together is to us.”
Alex nodded, already on her way up the wide stairs to the second floor. “Right, mom.” She looked down at Pickles. “It’s not the together part I mind,” she confided to the black cat. “It’s the dinner part.”
Here, it should simply be said that Mrs. Keegan wasn’t quite the cook that Jean was. Not that she was that bad of a cook…only, she and her husband leaned heavily in the direction of vegetarianism. A burger at the Keegan house was just as likely to be made of tofu as it was beef.
Alex entered her bedroom and kicked the door shut behind her with a bare foot. “Here we are, Pickles,” she said, setting down the cage and opening the door. “Home away from home—for you, anyway.”
Pickles, for the moment content in his cage, simply curled up and went to sleep, purring like an outboard motor.
“Alex?” Megan—the youngest of the Keegan girls—tapped at Alex’s door. “Did you bring Pickles home?”
Alex pulled a baggy sweatshirt over her head. “Yeah,” she answered. “Don’t open the door—I don’t want him running loose.”
“Can I come in and see him?”
“Sure.”
Megan gingerly pushed the door open and slipped inside, shutting it tightly behind her. She glanced around the room for a long moment before her eyes lit on the carrier sitting on the floor. She huffed. “He’s not running around—I was afraid he’d get out the door.”
Flopping onto her bed—a queen-sized monster of rich mahogany wood—Alex stared up at the ceiling. “I didn’t say he was running around,” she clarified. “I just said that I don’t want him running loose. Which is true—if he gets lost Jean will kill me.”
Megan was eight, five years younger than Alex. But she gave her sister a look most teenagers hadn’t yet perfected and said, “Jean wouldn’t kill you. He’s too nice.”
“It’s a figure of speech, Megan.” Attracted by the new person in the room, Pickles deigned to rise—luxuriantly—from his padded cage. Curious, he glided across the braided run on the floor and wrapped his tail around Megan’s leg, purring.
“He likes me!” she squealed, bending down to stroke his thick black fur. Alex rolled over and watched her sister. Great, she thought. Now I’ll never get her out of here. She didn’t mind too much, though. Of her two sisters, she got along with Megan best. Alex and her older sister Becca on the other hand—
“Alex!”
Speaking of whom…
“What, Becca?”
“Did you take my sweater?” Becca’s voice was muffled through the door, but there was no mistaking the ire in her tone.
Alex winced. “Um…what sweater?”
“Why you little sneak! You unraveled half the sleeve!”
“What are you talking about?” Alex asked, though she could see with perfect clarity in her mind’s eye: the green and blue woolen sweater, hand-wash only, $5.99 on the sale rack at Zimmer’s Department Store. Megan giggled—she knew how these things usually turned out.
Without warning, Alex’s door suddenly burst open and Becca stormed in, waving the mutilated sweater like a battle standard. “You are so going to buy me a replacement, you little twerp!” she shouted.
Pickles leaped into the air, his back arched. Hissing, he bounded toward Becca, who yelped in surprise and tripped over her own foot trying to leap out of the way.
With an angry merp, Pickles hurdled Becca’s shoe and raced from the room, disappearing into the wide hallway.
“Becca!” Alex wailed, scrambling off her bed.
“Well how was I supposed to know you had Jean’s mangy cat in here?” Becca exclaimed.
Ignoring her sister, Alex pushed out of the room and into the hallway, trying to figure out which way Pickles had gone. “Here, kitty-kitty-kitty!” she called. Remembering how Pickles would climb trees when threatened by dogs, she went left and up the stairs that led to the third floor. “Pickles!”
“I’ll look for him downstairs,” Megan offered.
“Thanks,” Alex called, not looking back. She heard a bang as Becca slammed her bedroom door shut, and gritted her teeth. Sometimes Becca made her so mad…that stupid sweater wasn’t really Alex’s fault, anyway. Sure, she had wanted to borrow it, but it had caught on the hanger as she pulled it out of the closet. So technically, she hadn’t even taken the thing. Sheesh—it was only a matter of time before the cheap sweater had unraveled. After all, you get what you pay for, and something that only cost $5.99 can’t be that well-made.
But that was irrelevant at the moment. She needed to find that cat.
A door slapped shut somewhere down the hall—just as a crash of thunder shook the house, and Alex’s surroundings vanished into darkness. The electric was out.
Alex turned and hurried back to her room, finding her way by memory aided by brief flashes of lightning. The storm was moving in fast. She grabbed a flashlight out of her sock drawer and rushed back into the hall. Now that she could see again, she wondered which door she had heard shut—all of them were closed. On her right were the doors to her parent’s bedroom, the upstairs bathroom, and the walk-in linen closet. On the left, there was the guest room, Becca’s bedroom, and the library.
Wait—Becca had just come from her room, angry. Would she have shut her door behind her?
Alex pushed open the door of her sister’s room and peeked inside. Pickles sat beside Becca’s enormous wardrobe, looking up at Alex and licking his paw.
“There you are,” Alex said with relief, shining her light around the rest of the room to make sure he hadn’t clawed anything or knocked anything over. Something caught her eye. “Oh, wow…” she whispered, shutting the bedroom door and hurrying over to get a closer look. “Wow, oh wow, oh wow.”
The walls in Becca’s room—as in most of the upstairs—were paneled along the bottom half of the wall in hand-cut, square sections. Two years ago, Becca had painted hers in alternating shades of blue and white. Now, in the dim light of the room, Alex saw that one of the white panels had popped out from the wall—barely and inch, but visible. At first, she was afraid that it had been broken, but as she touched it, the panel swung open a bit more on an invisible hinge.
“It’s another hidden door, Pickles!” Alex exclaimed, whispering for some reason. She glanced over her shoulder at the bedroom door. Becca might be back at any moment, and Alex didn’t want to share her discovery until she knew all about it. Before she could talk herself into waiting for the lights to come back on, she pushed the panel open all the way and crawled inside, Pickles on her heels.
The space was barely large enough to crawl through, but Alex’s flashlight beam illuminated a larger area a few feet away. “The window seat in the library,” she breathed to Pickles, “We’re inside of it.”
Her hand brushed against something cold and round. Looking down, Alex saw that it was the handle to a trap door. She grabbed it, and pulled—it was awkward in the tight space, but she managed to pull the tiny door up, and shone her light down inside. A ladder was built into the wall of the shaft, leading straight down for what seemed like miles.
With a deep breath and one last glance over her shoulder at the open panel, which let in the dimmest crack of light, Alex swung her legs down into the shaft and stood on the top rung of the ladder. Pickles looked at her askance.
“I’ll be back in a minute, kitty,” she assured him, tucking the flashlight under her arm.
“Merp,” he protested. Before she could duck, he leaped toward her, landing on her shoulder as if he were some pirate’s parrot.
“Ow!” Alex exclaimed as the cat’s claws dug into her shoulder. She caught he balance on the ladder and glared cross-eyed at Pickles. “Who invited you?”
He only purred. Rolling her eyes, Alex began climbing down the ladder.
 
“Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six…” she muttered to herself. Then one foot touched solid ground. Shining her flashlight up the shaft, Alex swallowed to see how far she had come. She was surely below even the ground floor of the house here.
Pickles jumped off her shoulder and landed on the dirt floor of the narrow tunnel. He sniffed at something beside the wall, and Alex shone her light on it.
“Ew!” she exclaimed. It was a dead mouse. “Mom said she thought we had mice,” Alex shuddered. “Dad thought it was just her imagination.”
Stepping quickly past the rodent, Alex moved down the tunnel. It was barely wider than her shoulders, with wooden walls built of unfinished planks that were furry with dust and cobwebs. No spiders that she could see—thankfully—but long, evil looking splinters stuck out at odd angles, as if to grab at her shirt and bare arms.
“This place is just a little creepy, Pickles,” she confided in a whisper. The black cat looked up at her and meowed. “Hey, I know,” she said, “Want to hear a joke? What’s black and brown and looks good on a lawyer?”
Pickles didn’t answer.
“A Doberman!” Alex giggled nervously. The black cat flicked his tail and ignored her. She sighed. “You’re right—it’s not that funny. I’ll be quiet now.”
Alex regretted not going back for shoes before venturing into the secret space: the floor of the tunnel was dirt that hadn’t been swept in years, if ever. She shone her light carefully ahead of her, watching for fallen nails or other sharp objects that might cut her feet.
The tunnel curved just ahead, and she rounded the corner cautiously. Her way was barred by a small wooden door, built from the same rough wood that made up the walls. The doorknob was rusted, and hung from a single nail.
Gingerly, Alex pressed the door open.
She stepped through the doorway into a small room, just a bit smaller than her own bedroom. Two wooden cots—one collapsed on itself—were propped against the wall, and a stack of dusty, dry-rotted blankets were neatly folded in the corner. A crate, turned upside-down as a makeshift table, held two brass candlesticks with half-burned candles and a tin coffeepot; and an open box of matches lay on the floor beside it.
But the part that caught and held Alex’s attention was the walls. Unlike the blank, unfinished sides of the corridor outside, these had been sanded down to a painstakingly smooth finish. And covering every inch of the walls was writing; letters meticulously scratched into the smooth wood with penknives and rubbed with coal dust to darken the indentations. Moving closer, Alex held her light up to the writing.
“Paula Ruth,” she whispered, tracing the rough letters with a delicate touch. “Simon. Jimmy Clark. Addie Marie.” Each name was carved differently—obviously not by the same hands or at the same time. Some were faint and hard to see, and some looked as bright and fresh as if they had been carved yesterday.
“Who are these people?” Alex asked Pickles, who had curled up on one of the old blankets and was purring loudly—a comforting sound in the stillness of the room. Alex suddenly realized that she hadn’t heard thunder since she climbed down the ladder. “We must be underground,” she said. It felt good to hear her own voice.
Down lower, she suddenly spotted a solid chunk of writing, where someone had actually burned their words into the wood. Crouching down, she read:
Dedicated:
This room is a safe room, for the shelter of those poor souls who flee from cruel masters in the South. I will hide them here, away from evil men who would capture them and return them to the plantations; and while they are here, I will endeavor to teach them to read and write. Each name on these walls is one freed man or woman or child who will no longer be shackled by the bonds of slavery, for they have learned the rudimentary fundamentals of the written language. No man can be a slave when his mind has been freed by the written word, and they shall continue their journey North fed, clothed, warmed and ready to begin new lives as free citizens.
God help us all,
Marianne Hoffman, March 31, 1842
“The Underground Railroad!” Alex breathed; a fluttery sensation in her belly. She was standing in the very room that had held escaped slaves fleeing to the North!
“I’ve got to tell Mom and Dad,” she exclaimed, standing up and scooping Pickles into her arms. “Come on, Pickles!” she ordered him, ignoring his mewling protests and nearly running back up the tunnel.
 
“…And it was signed by Marianne Hoffman in 1842!” she finished explaining excitedly to her parents. The family was gathered in the downstairs living room around a cluster of flickering candles.
“You should have told me first,” Becca complained. “It’s my room.” But she didn’t really sound mad.
“It was really Pickles who found it,” Alex shrugged. “If he hadn’t gone in there, I never would have noticed.” She frowned. “Actually, I’m still not sure how the panel got opened. The little button that releases it is too high for him to have reached.”
Mr. Keegan patted her on the leg. “However it happened,” he said, “This is a fantastic discovery. When we bought the house, the real-estate agent told us that there were legends about Marianne Hoffman being part of the abolitionist movement, but I dismissed it as hearsay.”
“I’m still concerned about that mouse, though,” Mrs. Hoffman added in a worried voice. “Should we call the exterminator?”
Alex pointed at Pickles, who was snoring in her lap. “Pickles is a great mouser,” she told her mother. “I’ll let him loose down there while he’s here, and he can take care of the mice easily.”
“There, then; that’s all settled,” Mr. Hoffman said decisively, squinting at the glowing numbers on his watch. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll call the Historical Society. But for now, girls, it’s after nine o’clock. Bedtime for all.”
Megan groaned, but Becca and Alex stood and kissed their parents goodnight without protest. It was too dark to do anything else anyway, and Alex admittedly felt pretty tired.
On the way up the stairs, Becca hesitated. “I don’t really want to sleep in there,” she confessed to Alex. “It’s kind of creepy.”
“You can sleep in my room if you want,” Alex offered.
“Really?”
“Sure. If…” Alex held up one finger.
“If what?” Becca asked warily.
If you let me sleep in your room.”
“You want to sleep in there?”
“Yeah. Fair trade?”
Becca shrugged. “Sure. Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the mice and spiders and creepy-secret-tunnel-stuff bite.”
Alex laughed. “I won’t. Goodnight.”
“Hey, and don’t forget that you owe me a sweater.”
“Oh. Right.”
Ten minutes later, she was curled up in Becca’s bed, with Pickles purring on her toes. Staring through the darkness, dimly illuminated by frequent lightning flashes, Alex gazed at the panel—closed, now. Engraved names of long-gone slaves danced in front of her eyes, and she suppressed a shiver of excitement. Who knew what kinds of things they might find out about those people?
“Marianne must have been brave,” she said sleepily to Pickles. The cat only purred louder.
“I can’t wait for tomorrow,” Alex said. Her last thought before drifting off to sleep was, And I can’t wait to tell Jean. Won’t he be proud of Pickles?
And then she slept, dreaming of escaping slaves and hidden rooms and a brave woman she had never met—and of hamburgers piled high with pickles.

Comments

I already read this

On your contest thing and I loved it! I was gonna vote for it but I didn't get around to reading the rest of the stories before the time ran out. 

Keri | Tue, 05/11/2010

...

Oh wow, this is great.  That would be so cool to find a secret room in your own house!  And the last line is funny.

Bridget | Tue, 05/11/2010

"I always wonder why birds stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere on the earth. Then I ask myself the same question." - Harun Yahya

:)

I like this. :) 

I remember that whenever we moved to a new house, we'd spend a day exploring it, looking for secret passages... the most we ever found was that the vent in our coat closet could be moved and you could climb down into the pantry...

Kyleigh | Wed, 05/12/2010

...

^Hey, that's still pretty cool.  The most I've ever found was an electrical panel.

Bridget | Wed, 05/12/2010

"I always wonder why birds stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere on the earth. Then I ask myself the same question." - Harun Yahya

Very Cool

tornado siren going through puberty--

hilarious line, of course. You totally deserved to win. I think the only reason I came in second was because not many people voted.

Julie | Wed, 05/12/2010

Formerly Kestrel

This was great!  I like it.

This was great!  I like it. :)

Clare Marie | Wed, 05/12/2010

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*
"I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve." -Bilbo Baggins [The Lord of the Rings]

Thanks, girls

This is one of my personal faves...very different than what I usually write. Glad it was a hit. And Kestrel, yes: that line is one of my very favorites as well. Personally, I LOVED yours...speaking of which, I'm going to go check out your stuff right now. I've just discovered the Cantos, and I'm falling in love.

LoriAnn | Wed, 05/12/2010

^_^

Very humorous, nice touches with the sibling rivalry going on, Extremely believable.

Sarah | Thu, 05/13/2010

"Sometimes even to live is courage."
-Seneca

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