Saturday, 16 April 2011

Flash Fiction --- The Ornament

A few years back the following story came to me in a dream. I've never told it to an Analyst. I've no idea what it means. However I thought that it may entertain, so here it is. We're not in Scotland, but deep in the heart of Texas....

Mark Gerald had to be in trouble, otherwise the feds wouldn’t have called at Seven Acres. I knew who they were from their pressed suits, the rented van and the cell phones in their hands as they circled his ranch house, poking their heads in the windows. The tall thin one saw me by the juniper tree, my rifle ready.

“I’d keep your hand away from that,” he warned. “Mr. Gerald around?”

“He stays in Austin. Here on weekends.”

I rarely saw Mark. His father and I had been close for many years. He would have wanted me there to protect his son's place from the goons. I stood by the door while they checked under every bush, all the time talking on their phones. An hour later Mark’s pickup rolled up the driveway. A door slammed.

“Are you Mark Gerald?” the tall one asked him.

“He’s in the ranch house,” Mark said hardly looking at the suit.

“There’s no one there. We’re Federal Agents. AFT. Lying to a federal agent is a federal crime.”

“That’s right.”

Mark came round the corner. He saw me by the tree, nodded in recognition and entered his house by the back door. His overconfident grin made me even more nervous. He didn’t know what he was up against.

The tall man knocked on the front door. Mark opened it.

“Mr. Gerald?” the man asked coldly. “Drake Evans, AFT. Can we have a talk?”

“Greetings Mr. Evans,” Mark cried, slapping the agent on his back. “Of course. We’ve talked on the phone.”

I walked up to the house, eyes on the smaller man. He was sitting in a wire chair, his feet propped up on a log, cell phone at his ear.

“Yes,” Mark’s voice came through the open window. “You’re here about a Chistmas ornament. Which one? See if you can pick it out.”

I didn’t catch the agent’s question.

“You got it. But be careful – it might fly away.”

Another question.

“It’s all plastic. What? It circles the tree when people sing. Want to try it with your favorite carol?”

Two weeks ago, I saw something flying around Mark’s driveway. At first I thought it was a bird. Whatever it was, it glinted in the sunlight and flew off with a buzzing sound. Maybe it was only an unusual bug. But what if it wasn’t?

“Energy source?” Mark asked. “I dunno. What’s that?” After a pause during which the agent mumbled some more. “You think I use my mind to make it go? It’s nothing to do with my or your mind. It’s clothes. You need to wear cotton. It bounces off cotton and flies faster – see those cotton hangings on the tree? My kids made those.”

He had to be crazy.

“Watch it go.”

Mark’s clear voice sounded out singing : ‘Rudolf the red nose reindeer…’

A buzzing sound came from the window. I glimpsed something small darting through the indoor shadows.

“No, it’s not a gyro,” Mark added. “No moving parts. It’s got water in the middle. That’s all. Each Christmas I make one and give it to a kid who has nothing. Really nothing. Have I patented it? Who’d want to fool about with that thing.”

Silence. The man said, “A photo?”

“No sir --- keep your camera away. If you want a picture of it, go look at the Ranch News. Ten years ago someone ran an article about it.”

The tall man soon reappeared and rejoined his partner. He walked unsteadily as if drunk. His white face trembled as if he’d had news of a family death. They spoke in low voices as they walked to their van. They drove off.

Mark met me in the garden, said ‘howdy’ and asked how the calving was progressing. Nothing ever bothered him, and right now his blue eyes sparkled as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

“Mr. Gerald,” I said. “It’s not my place to butt into your business, but I think you need to be careful about those men. They’re after something you have and won’t stop until they get it.”

“My ornament? No one will deprive a poor child of their present.”

Mark was that way. He spoke another language.

“Like I said, I don’t want to be nosey,” I persisted. “This is about you. You don’t have a family, and there’s no one here to help you except for us neighbors. I’m concerned. People who get involved like you sometimes turn up dead. Those men looked scared, about to do something serious.”

It was hard to talk to him when I didn’t know what I was talking about and he didn’t want to help me either. It made no difference. By the following February Mark was dead. An eighteen-wheeler slammed into his pickup. He never had a chance.

In the town library, I scanned all the back issues of the ‘Ranch News’ for a picture of Mark’s ornament. I found a picture of him standing beside the town Christmas tree, surrounded by a troop of kids. He wasn’t looking at them though, but at something like a butterfly floating next to the tree. It was no butterfly, not unless the butterfly had a body like a sphere with curved wings.

Mark did have a family. Somewhere in Texas were kids who each had his ornament, assuming they hadn’t broken it. They’d never be able to copy it, so it wouldn’t make them rich. They might not even know how special they were.

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