He huffed and waited ’cause she was always yellin’.
He stood behind a tree, barely peeking around the thick trunk, a new friend cupped in his palms, watching her. Rust colored smudges soiled her petticoat. She looked older, worn, probably ’cause they were leavin’ and probably ’cause she was always yellin’ and screamin’.
“We’ll make it, Earl,” he whispered into his prayer shaped hands.
His mother turned and faced the other direction. She spit into the eerie orange dirt. “Colt!”
He ran up behind her in an instant. Without sound. “What?” He kept the toad a secret.
“Boy, you scared me. Don’t do that again. Do you have everything ready? In the carriage?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, eyeing the old, broken down contraption, their only means of transportation, and yet, she seemed certain they could ride out of town in it.
The toad’s skin grated like sandpaper against Colt’s damp palms. He liked it though. He could feel the creature’s throat beating, tickling.
He felt life.
The same life scurried through the dirt underneath his bare feet, and the dirt meant home. His home, on the wide open land … as far as the eye could see.
“I don’t wanna go.”
“Colt, we’ve been over this.” She sighed and adjusted his plaid collar, straightening him out. There. “You know we halfta go.” She knelt and placed her hands over his fists, unaware of the toad and seemingly oblivious to her son’s introspection. “You are the man of the house now.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. I’ve told you—”
“—No. Pa is. What about him?” he asked, looking at his grandfather out of the corner of his eye.
Pa McMillan busied himself at the wagon, pulling the frayed rope over the breadth of their load. Colt grimaced, aware of the friction the twisted cable created in between the weathered skin of the old man’s hands.
The wind blew his grandfather’s thin, white hair, and it carried the golden dirt across Pa’s boots and across the plains. The dirt covered everything, leaving nothing untouched, and then it would vanish without a trace.
Like Earl, Colt’s dad — not the toad. The toad remained safe inside the nine-year-old boy’s grasp. He wouldn’t let him go. Colt had befriended many an old Oklahoma creature, and they all had been named Earl. The four letters kept his father alive, reminding him. Mother chose to forget. To leave.
“Pa is my father.” She corrected him. “He’s not the man of our house. That’s you, Colt. Now, where is your sister?” She tilted her head up and looked about the prairie as she licked her thumb, and then she turned her attention again to her son, wiping a smidgen of clay from his dimpled cheeks.
“Stop it, Mommy,” he said, wincing, turning his face.
“Emma Jean,” she cried. Always Emma Jean, never Emma. “Go find her. Go on.” She waved him off. He blinked up at her. She stood, a statue, her gown marrying itself to the dirt.
“Go on, boy.”
Colt ambled away, strutting like his father, that’s what Pa always told him anyway. “Boy, you’re slow and thinking, just like you’re papa.” He must’ve heard it a million times.
Colt pulled his thumb back slightly, revealing an opening about the size of a dime. He peered down into the cavern of his fists, and then he stroked Earl above his eyes, consoling his pet, assuring the brown-spotted confidant they would make it. Oh, the ride would be long alright, through uncharted territory.
Colt had heard stories about them parts. He knew only one safe passageway existed through those Rocky Mountains, and people had died doing it another way, the wrong way, and for all Colt knew — his father had been one of the wrongs.
“There, there, Earl, don’t cry,” he whispered, stroking the amphibian’s skin. “We’ll be safe. We’ll make it alright.”
“Who in the devil are you talkin’ to?” Emma Jean appeared next to her brother, holding a rifle. The skirt of her pale pink dress was filthy.
“Nobody.” Colt closed his fists tightly and shifted his eyes, squinting as he turned toward the sun, toward the carriage, toward his new life and away from the old. The old house, the old path and the old dirt.
“Come on, kids,” Pa called, interrupting. “Get in. Your mother’s ready.”
“Aww, Pa, I was just shootin’ at some bunnies. I was gettin’ ready to go back for more,” Emma Jean said, stepping into the carriage.
“There’ll be plenty of time for shootin’ later,” her grandfather said, taking the gun and helping to hold her weight steady with the palm of his well-weathered hand.
“I can get in by myself.” Colt nodded.
Pa McMillan winked a reply, and then he took his place up front with the horses, next to his daughter.
“Scoot over, Em, you’re hoggin’ the whole seat.” Colt shoved his weight against his sister.
Emma Jean snorted and smirked. “Oh, I wish I’d seen some hogs.” She gripped the side of the carriage and peered across the plain, licking her upper lip.
“All you ever think about is killin’.”
“No, I think about boys too.”
“I bet there will be some boys over on the other side of those mountains. I’m gonna teach ‘em how to shoot.”
The wagon began to move, startling the siblings. Emma Jean sat back and folded her hands on her lap like a lady; the black underneath her fingernails said otherwise.
Colt leaned over the edge, watching the wheels turn. They continued to spin inside his pupils, reflecting the road he hoped to remember, reflecting his whole life.
All he ever knew.
He moved his thumb a sliver and spoke in a whisper: “It’s okay, Earl. Shh. It’s okay.”
“What is that?” Emma Jean’s eyes spread like the wings of an eagle. She scooted closer. “Let me see.”
“No! Get away.” Colt gave her his shoulder. He leaned farther over the edge and opened his palm, releasing Earl in an instant.
Hop. Hop. Hop. Free. Free. Free.
“Go, Earl, go, please,” he whispered. He didn’t know how it was possible, but he longed for the little toad’s company as much as he wanted to see him set free.
Colt gripped the door, extended his neck and stared at Earl, until he was merely a speck, a dot, a piece of the orange dirt, shrinking and shrinking, a mirage — the toad, his house, the prairie, the place his father could find them when he returned.
Everything. Gone. In a blink.
About the Author: A.R. Hadley
A.R. Hadley has been a creative writer since elementary school, however, she all but gave it up after her children were born, devoting herself to the lovely little creatures, forgetting the pleasure and happiness derived from being imaginative.
She rediscovered her passion in 2014, and has not stopped since — writing essays, poetry, and fiction. A.R is currently working on a set of novels as part of a romantic trilogy, and also dabbles in penning short stories.
Day or night, words float around inside her brain. She hears dialogue when awakening from sleep. She is the one who has been awakened. Writing is her oxygen.