FREE FICTION FRIDAY
When the city comes after Tabby’s childhood—and the childhood of dozens of foster kids just like her—it’s time to take a stand.
Tabby brushed her daughter’s unruly curls into a pony-tail and scooted her out the door. The dew glistened on the front lawn. She buckled the three-year-old into the booster. Tabby had to run the wipers and roll down the front windows to clear them before she could leave the drive.
She had an eight o’clock appointment with the mortuary. The visitation and funeral services last week went well, and Tabby was listed in the will as Miss Agnes Littleton’s executor. She was also listed as the one who should receive Agnes’s ashes to do with as she saw fit.
Tabby had no idea what to do with them. Her husband said it would be creepy to leave them in the house, even though neither was superstitious nor overly concerned with such matters.
She pulled into the lot, retrieved her daughter and went inside. Kelly squirmed and kicked to break free, but it wasn’t the time or the place. Tabby whispered a harsh correction into Kelly’s ear, and the little girl settled and allowed her mother to tote her to the mortician’s office.
“Hello, Mrs. Sutton. Thank you for making it here so early. We have a viewing this afternoon for a serviceman with complicated wishes.” The lady seemed frazzled, dropping papers and shifting files across the desk.
She unlocked the bottom filing cabinet drawer and pulled out a black box the size of the shoe box that Kelly’s last sneakers had come in. One woman’s existence reduced to such a small piece of real estate.
Tabby signed the paperwork. “What can I do with them? Do you have any suggestions?”
The lady shuffled more papers, looking under this pile and that, and finally produced a sheet. “Here are some guidelines and prices if you’d want to use the cemetery. They can open a spot near a family member’s headstone for a hundred fifty. But,” she leaned in close and whispered, “if you ask me, you can just talk a nice walk and scatter them. No harm done in my opinion. No need to file for permission or pay all that extra.”
Tabby folded the paper and slid it into her jeans. She thanked the lady, though she’d not been much help, and gathered the box and Kelly.
“Oh, Mrs. Sutton, they’re setting up in the main room now. Would you mind leaving out the side door?”
“Sure.” Tabby walked through the side, where Agnes had lain in a rented casket for the viewing in a smaller, more secluded room. Tabby remembered the small trickle of people who’d paid their respects to the old lady. She’d spent most of her last two years in a nursing home. Tabby had tried to visit as much as she could, but with Kelly it was difficult. She didn’t know how Agnes got anything done in her years with the kids. Many of those kids came to the viewing. Many couldn’t make it. And Agnes, at eighty-six years old, had outlived some of her children.
Tabby buried her face in Kelly’s hair, breathed in the strawberry shampoo to erase the swell of emotion, and left the building.
McDonald’s drive-thru was just what Tabby needed to distract Kelly for a moment so she could think. Tom really didn’t want the ashes in the house, and neither did Tabby. Agnes wouldn’t want to rest in a box in some closet or put on display in a fancy urn. She’d want to be set free in some meaningful place.
She pulled into the park and sat Kelly on the picnic bench with the Happy Meal toy she’d paid extra for because they weren’t serving lunch yet.
Agnes had liked the park. Tabby could simply empty the box of the contents along the shady row of oaks where the landscapers had recently planted red and pink impatiens. In a few weeks, the flowers would propagate, cover Miss Agnes, and everyone would be happy.
But it felt empty, too easy. Tabby needed more time to think.
She needed inspiration.
She called Tom’s mom and asked if she was free to watch Kelly for a while. “Absolutely,” came the answer. Tabby would pay for it later as her mother-in-law rarely enforced nap time and treated Kelly to all manner of sugary delights and wild rumpus.
“Want to go see Granny?”
Kelly’s blue eyes lit up and she squealed and ran for the van. Tabby caught her half-way there, hanging her upside down in playful glee. “Will you be good for Granny?”
Giggles and nods from the topsy-turvy girl, her ponytail brushing the ground.
“Are you sure?”
Tabby turned her right side up and fastened her into the seat once more. After dropping her off with her grandmother and “kissies” goodbye, Tabby headed for her girlhood home for the first time in ten years.
Brookdale Drive was on the other side of the city. Tabby had returned only once since graduating high school—when Agnes was first diagnosed with cancer about a decade ago. The sweet lady enjoyed remission for a while, but the chemotherapy damaged her liver so badly that she became too weak to live on her own. Agnes had spent the rest of her days in a nursing home on the east side, near Tabby.
She pulled onto the road, and the two-story childhood home called attention to itself, distracting the view from the well-kept homes all along Brookdale. Tabby would have liked to think it was because the house had sat empty for so long, but that wasn’t the case. The home had always stood out as odd.
Agnes Littleton’s home was the oldest in the neighborhood by far. Other owners had sold or renovated their homes decades ago, but not Agnes. She’d put her heart and soul into her kids, not the house. It had served one purpose: to give haven to as many as possible.
Once Agnes fell ill, she’d made Tabby promise not to get rid of it until she was “good and dead.” Tabby had received notices from the city council that it should be leveled, or at least handed over to a developer or flipped. The empty dwelling was drawing all manner of vandalism and the occasional squatter. She’d given them permission to board up the windows and doors, but informed them that Agnes, still in her right mind, had no mind to sell or demolish the property.
The neighbors’ complaints escalated so that as soon as the preacher said “Amen” after the funeral, Tabby and Tom had received notice from dutiful councilwoman Vickie Snyder, conveniently in attendance that day, that if they’d sign the papers, which were conveniently in her vehicle, demolition could begin as soon as possible and the whole matter would be out of Tabby’s hair. Of course, she was doing the Suttons a favor by expediting the process.
That had been a week ago.
Today, on Brookdale Drive under a cloudless summer sky, Tabby saw the two-story, wood-sided house on the large corner lot for what it was: her first real home. She pulled along the curb by the fence and put the van in park. She looked at the little black box in the seat next to her and sobbed.
She’d cried when she’d heard the news of Agnes’s passing, of course. She’d shed tears at the viewing and again at the funeral. But real grief had evaded her until the moment the wooden privacy fence stretching the length of the property came into full view.
Agnes had taken Tabby into her home when Tabby was ten years old and her parents had died in a car accident. There were no relatives, or at least no one that had wanted her, and Agnes’s foster home had had an empty bedroom.
Or that’s what Agnes had told Child Protective Services.
Agnes had filed for foster parent status when she was forty-five, after her husband passed away. The couple never had children, which Agnes had desperately longed for. She took in as many as would fit in the five-bedroom home. Many times, she’d give up her own bedroom to allow siblings to stay together. She’d sleep on the couch and never complain about it.
CPS had placed Tabby in the fifth bedroom.
And Agnes had ended up on the couch.
She’d ran the home like a miniature army boot camp, but with all the love of a grandmother. Every kid, after a day or two, knew the routine, the schedule and their responsibilities. They only stepped out of line once or twice. Agnes had a way about her that no one could quite describe. The look of disappointment in her pale blue eyes was enough for even the hard-nosed gang teen to bow their head in submission and comply with her requests.
Tabby dried the tears and stepped out of the van. She walked along Brookdale toward 5th Street and admired the fence. Eight feet high and made of simple plank wood, it surrounded the entire property. Neighbors on the Brookdale side claimed it drove their property values down. Those on the 5th Street side demanded the fence be painted. Agnes had explained to the city council that her children needed to be kept safe, and that it would be worse for the neighbors if the balls, bikes and hula hoops were in eye-shot. It was the fence or the mess.
Agnes had won out with the stipulation that she paint the fence.
She signed the paperwork stating, “The fence shall be painted yearly.”
“I’ll do them one better. We’ll paint it every few months.”
Tabby had been with Agnes about two months when the paint issue arose. She remembered coming to Agnes’s from school that day. Agnes had gallons of paint, all in different shades—skin tones, pastels, bolds and brights. She had five gallons of black. She whistled for the children, eight of them that day. Seven of them lined up in front of her, and she carried three-year-old Billy on her hip.
“Today, we’re gonna paint this fence.” She handed each child a paintbrush, allowed them to pick their favorite color and directed them to the outside of the fence. She spread the kids along the sidewalk, some along Brookdale, some along Fifth Street. She handed Billy to Fredrico, one of the teenage boys. “This is how it’s gonna work.”
She spread her arms out as far as she could get them and hugged against the fence, face pressed sideways against the wooden planks. “Have a friend mark where your fingertips end. Then we’ll paint a huge circle that wide in some happy color. When that color dries, we’ll paint on black eyes and a smiley face mouth.”
She took Billy and stood his back against the fence and spread his arms out “like an airplane.” Tabby remembered thinking the woman had lost it. All these years of caring for the kids, and she’d just snapped. She set three choices in front of the little boy. He picked sky blue.
She opened the can, dipped in a brush and put a mark at the ends of his fingertips, and then a dot of blue on his nose, which made everyone giggle. She moved him out of the way and showed them how to make two arcs to form a big circle. “No need for perfection. Ain’t none of us perfect anyway.”
The other seven kids got to work, helping each other mark out the width of the faces. Older kids took up the top portions of the fence, letting the younger ones have the lower parts. Most of them chose wild and wonderful colors. Fredrico chose a rich tan to match his skin.
While the circles dried, she sat them down on the sidewalk, praised them for their efforts and explained that each time a new child came to the home, they’d find a place on the fence to paint their smiley face. And when and if the time came for a child to leave Agnes’s foster home, they could paint a fabulous hat of their own creation as a way to say goodbye.
Tabby stopped midway on Brookdale, directly under the street lamp. After all this time, Tabby could still find her smiley face. She spread her arms over the fence and her painted face, once hot pink, now faded to pastel with gray eyes and a fading smile. Her fingertips reached beyond the edges of her face and touched the neighboring artwork.
Tabby had stayed with Agnes until she “adulted out.” After graduation, she had to find her own way and make room for another child under Agnes’s roof. The day before she left, after she’d packed her things, five kids, all different ages and all different from the ones who’d started the smiley face fence eight years before, lined up to watch Tabby paint the hat onto her face.
Over the years, Tabby, and many other kids, filled notebooks with different hat designs, dreaming of adoption or graduation, in anticipation of leaving Miss Agnes. Not that they wanted to leave. None of them were mistreated, but every foster kid’s hope is for some sense of permanence. Tabby had settled on a black graduation cap with a purple and yellow tassel. The kids all clapped and cheered. Miss Agnes hugged her so tight that day that Tabby thought her insides would burst.
She walked a few feet down to Fredrico’s face. He never got to paint a hat on his artwork. Tabby reached up and traced the halo with her fingers. Sometimes, no matter how much Agnes tried, things just didn’t turn out. In her magnificent stretch as a foster mother, Agnes had lost five children. Three faces on Brookdale and two faces on 5th Street wore halos. Five lives snuffed out from the ugliness of drugs, gangs or crazed birth parents.
An obnoxious alarm pulled Tabby from the past. She turned back to see a bulldozer and several other vehicles lining the street in front of the house.
A hard-hatted worker approached with a clipboard. “Are you here to sign the papers?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I thought you were Vickie Synder.”
“No, I’m not.”
“That’s me, that’s me!” Vickie came around the corner from 5th Street, high heels clacking on the pavement. “I’ll sign it. Sorry I’m late.” She took the clipboard and flew through the paperwork. To Tabby she said, “I didn’t know you’d be here today.”
“It’s happening today? You’re tearing it down today?”
“Yes, ma’am. If there’s anything in the house you want saved, you’ll need to go get it now.”
Tabby stared at the fence. Dozens of faces smiled back at her, in every color imaginable. Dozens more down on Fifth.
“I want the fence,” she whispered.
“What’s that?” asked Vickie.
“The fence. I don’t want the fence damaged.”
“Well, ma’am, the fence can’t stay. We have to take it down to reach the house.” The construction worker pushed hard along the fence, testing for weaknesses.
“I don’t care what you do with the house. But I want the fence left intact.”
“That’s not possible, Mrs. Sutton.” Vickie stood with a hand on her hip.
“You said I could save what I wanted. I want the fence.” Tabby was panicking. A worker fired up the bulldozer and repositioned it to take down the first section. Tabby moved to block it.
“Mrs. Sutton, you must move. You can’t impede this work!”
“Watch me.” Never in her life had Tabby felt so defiant. She sat down in front of the fence, between it and the dozer. She pulled out her phone and took a photo of the scene, of councilwoman Vickie and the construction crew, who were now on their phones, no doubt to the police.
As fast as she could, she uploaded the photos to Facebook and tagged as many of her foster siblings as she could. Many of them still lived in the area. Some of them, like Tabby, had managed to find permanence with a family of their own.
“Mrs. Sutton, you must move. You’re hindering the work scheduled for today.”
“Just give me a little bit of time.” Tabby stood and faced Vickie. Neighbors gathered on their lawns, watching the show.
Within ten minutes, two cop cars and another three council people arrived on Brookdale Drive. Tabby explained the situation, as slowly as she could to buy more time, and after another ten minutes, five of the foster siblings showed up, two with spouses. They spread themselves across Brookdale and down the 5th Street side.
After another twenty minutes, both sides doubled—four cops and seven council people versus over a dozen of Miss Agnes’s children, many now with children of their own. The fosters, almost by instinct, stood as near their own smiley faces as they could, unmoving.
The crowd gathered from the neighborhood and someone called the local news station. Tabby spotted Tom in the crowd, holding their daughter, whom she’d forgotten to pick up from her mother-in-law’s in all the commotion. She tried to read his face, fearful that he’d be angry with her. But before she could see him clearly, he lifted a fist in the air and shouted, “Save That Fence! Save That Fence!”
Tabby bawled. The crowd, even some of the opinionated neighbors, got swept up in the chant. The Channel Seven News camera swept the scene, showing the contrast of the honked off officials gathered at the corner in their business suits versus the lively fist-pumpers. The cops were forced to redirect traffic around the mess.
Along the fence, Miss Agnes’s children stood strong, joining hands while the dozens of colorful faces smiled on.
Then someone called the mayor.
After two weeks of fighting and planning, Tabby Sutton and a dozen of her siblings won the right to move the fence. Gently.
They declared a work day, and the families showed up on Brookdale Drive to disassemble the fence, laying the planked sections on rented and borrowed flatbed trailers. The construction crew oversaw the project, and once the fence was down and the crowd had moved to a safe distance, many of them stayed to watch the initial demolition of the home in which they had been so well cared for.
Tabby, Tom, Kelly and Miss Agnes’s black box joined in the caravan from Brookdale to the public park near Tabby’s neighborhood. The same one she’d thought about scattering Agnes in weeks ago.
After a morning of work, the gang reconstructed the fence along the perimeter of the park. The news crew did follow-up interviews and took sweeping shots of the massive project. Gallons of paint donated by the local hardware store in every color imaginable came out, along with paintbrushes and smocks for the little ones. Each foster worked over their smiley face, keeping the original dimensions and colors as true as possible to the first day it was painted. For those that weren’t able to make it, someone’s spouse or child brightened up their smiley face for them.
Tabby took special care with Fredrico’s smiley face and the halo Miss Agnes had painted herself years ago.
They replanted the impatiens along the base of the fence, then Tom stood on a picnic tabletop and called order to the group.
Tabby took the black box from the funeral home and opened the pouch inside.
“Rest in peace, Miss Agnes Littleton.” Tabby laid her to rest along the base of the fence, forever smiled over by her children.
The crowd cheered and cried. Tabby joined her forever family for a huge embrace until Kelly wiggled away and pointed at the fence.
“Look at all the happy, Mommy!”
Tabby tipped her little girl upside down and swung her around. “Kelly Agnes Sutton! I love you.”
Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first Friday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.
Copyright © 2018 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.