A wooden fence surrounded the junkyard, separating the scrap metal from the small red cabin with the vast desert stretching out behind it. One of the lower beams, bowed slightly under Avery’s weight, her head resting on her folded arms atop one of the higher beams. Her pale face was flecked with freckles and framed by a blunt fringe, damp with sweat and stuck to her forehead. Two straggly yellow plaits tied with blue ribbon that matched her pinafore dress, sat limply on her shoulders.
Her momma had always kept a box of ribbons under her bed, which Avery liked nothing more than to rummage through, draping herself in the brilliant red, blue, green, yellow and orange silks. Her daddy had often joked that her momma’s ribbon collection would be the envy of souk merchants across the Middle East.
At the time, Avery had thought her daddy was referring to the middle east of America, and begged him to take her, surmising it would be a day’s drive at the most. He’d laughed and told her she might need to find a magic carpet to get to the deserts of North Africa in a day.
While the memory of her ignorant younger self embarrassed her, she often allowed herself to imagine the Texan desert that now surrounded her was the Sahara, full of mystique and hidden treasures.
Avery’s attention was caught by the sound of whistling as her uncle Tom stepped shirtless out on to the cabin veranda. He shielded his eyes from the glare, while assessing the view in front of him.
The carcasses of long-abandoned cars lay rusting in the midday sun as snaking waves of heat rose from the buckling metal frames. Rays of light bounced off the fragments of broken glass scattered across bonnets and ripped leather seats. It’d been weeks since he sold any parts; his junkyard was fast becoming a graveyard.
He rubbed his thumb over the calluses on the tips of his fingers in circular motions, stopping when he noticed the ragged edge of a nail just visible at the top of his ring finger. He brought it closer to his face and examined it before quickly jutting his head forward and ripping the white edge off with his teeth. He repeated the process for the other nine digits, before sitting down against the wood of his porch.
Avery jumped down off the fence and walked over to the cabin, lowering herself down next to her uncle. From his trouser pocket he pulled a red rubber ball and began to bounce it against the wall in front of him. The sound reverberated along the length of the cabin, echoing into the vast nothing.
Avery stared at his torso as she did every day, studying the deep gold colour of his skin, decorated with light pink scars of varying lengths and width. Shrapnel wounds of another life, one that seemed a million miles away to Avery, yet consumed every waking thought of Tom’s. She became aware that he had stopped bouncing the ball.
“27.” He continued to stare at the wall.
“So tell me about number 27.”
Avery laughed “Timbo? What kinda name is that?”
“Private Timothy Slate. We all called him Timbo. 16 years old and hands down the smartest sonofabitch I ever met. Came from Montgomery, Alabama but I tried not to hold that against him.”
Tom smiled to himself and Avery knew not to say anything. They had a well-practised routine now, so she waited patiently. After a few minutes, Tom cleared his throat.
“That mornin’, ole Timbo had been in a horn-tossing mood. It’d rained all night, turning the trench into a swamp. His boots had holes in em; was funny as hell watching him tryin’ to empty all the mud out while the rain just filled it straight back up again.
“He hadda girl back home, boasted she were the most beautiful woman in the world. She hadn’t replied to his last letter though, and he was pretty mad ‘bout it. I reckoned he’d proposed to her, maybe scared her off a bit. Thing is he’d left Alabama a kid, and had been forced to grow up pretty damn quick.”
He paused again. “Day before he died, he saved my life. I never thanked him.”
“We’d gone over the top, bullets flyin’ everywhere, and what do I do? I trip and twist my ankle bad. I went all the way to France to fall flat on my god damn face. I was terrified. Then ole Timbo appears and drags me outta there. Crazy thing is, he’d already made it back to our trench, but he came back for me.”
Avery twirled her blue ribbon around her index finger and closed her eyes as she listened. Every day for the last 27 days as her uncle spoke she’d questioned if this had been a good idea. She’d never encountered a man so distant from the world around him, that he chose to live in the middle of a desert, miles from civilisation. Consumed in her own grief and angry that they still hadn’t spoken about her momma, it had never occurred to her that she wasn’t the only one in pain.
One day she decided to tell him a story about her momma, hoping he’d reciprocate with stories of her as a child. He didn’t look up from his newspaper. The next day she tried again while he sat eating his breakfast, this time he looked at her but didn’t respond. On the third day, she’d joined him outside on the veranda while he bounced his red rubber ball against the wall 33 times, something he did every morning. When he finished, they sat there in silence for what felt an eternity, the sun beating against the back of their necks.
Eventually, he began to tell her the story of the first comrade he saw die in the war. In return she sang him a lullaby her momma had sung to her as a baby. They did the same the next day, and the day after…
“You still listenin’?”
Tom’s eyebrows were arched, and his face stern.
“Uh huh, I was closing my eyes to listen better, that’s all. Carry on.”
“Next day, while I was resting with my ankle up like a fool, the rest of my company went over the top again. Sounds strange to say, but Timbo was so…so alive, larger than life, I never thought he wouldn’t come back.”
Avery saw a single tear rolling down her uncle’s face and reached for his hand and held on to it tightly. “I’m sorry. I thought talkin’ bout it would help. I hate not talkin’ bout momma. I’m scared I’ll forget everything if I don’t say it out loud. You don’t have to tell me the other six stories if you don’t wanna.”
Tom squeezed her hand back. “Five more stories. I lost 32 comrades in France.”
“But you bounce the ball 33 times?”
“Your momma is 33.”
Avery swallowed hard and felt a hot stinging sensation in the corner of her eyes.
“You look just like her, right down to those damn ribbons in your hair. I didn’t expect that. Was a shock ya know, when you turned up here.” Tom’s voice was quivering.
“When I first met you, you were nothin’ like she said you’d be. But I’m startin’ to see it now.”
“Been a long time since I saw your momma. I changed. Kinda glad she didn’t get to see me like this.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s your turn now, tell me a story about her.”
Avery paused for a while.
“What’ll we do when we run outta stories to tell each other?”
“I think that’s when we leave our ghosts in the past, and go make some new stories together. I think they’d all want that, don’t you?”
“I do.” Avery smiled widely for the first time in months. “Did I tell you about the time momma and I pretended to go on a magic carpet ride…”
On 22 February I’m running a Writing Skills Masterclass – find out more on the All Things IC Masterclass website.