Last week I returned to my blog and the writing world. I also started an in-process story inspired by the current pandemic that continues to rage around us. Here’s where we left off last week on the fist installment of “I’ll Take Those Odds.”
“Tell it to me, please?” Albert asked again. “Grant the wish of a dying man?”
Death licked their lips and leaned forward. “Seeing as you’re on your way out and can’t tell another living soul, here goes.”
And now, here’s the next part. Happy reading.
January 17, 1919
Charlotte poured two glasses of whiskey and placed them on the table by the window. She looked out at the night, but it seemed bleak and cold as ever. Charlotte took a swig out of the bottle before setting it between the glasses. She fought the urge to spit it out and swallowed against the burn. The amber liquid danced in the light of the oil lantern. The small room was hot with the wood stove burning in the center. Albert was quiet in his crib, save for the constant wheezing. At least he was finally asleep, she told herself.
Charlotte walked to the chest of drawers in the hallway. Her fingers shook as she fought to open the top drawer. The drawer started to squeak at first, and she stopped, terrified she’d wake Albert. He was still asleep, though, so she pulled the drawer open slowly and took out the well worn deck of cards. As she closed the drawer, her eyes looked up the wall to the picture that hung there. The man in his uniform stared back at her, his eyes unseeing but seemingly judging nonetheless. “You’d do the same thing,” she told the picture. “You have no place to judge.”
Charlotte took the deck to the table and placed it next to the bottle. She fought the urge to take another drink. A hoot owl called outside and she startled. Oh, screw societal norms she thought and took another drink. Charlotte gagged on the liquor. She placed the bottle back and stole a look into Albert’s crib. He was asleep, thankfully, but his breathing was uneven. He was covered in sweat and the area around his nose was encrusted with mucus. If she wiped it off now, he’d wake up, and this was the first time he’d slept soundly in days.
She took a steadying breath and returned to the table, sitting in the chair beside it, her eyes searching the darkness that waited right outside. Her hands absentmindedly picked up her knitting. She was working on new socks for Albert. He would need them soon. He had stopped growing when he fell ill, but he would get better, and he would need the clothes then. Another bird or perhaps a stray cat made a sound outside and Charlotte’s head jerked up. She almost stabbed her finger with her needle. Silence once again followed, and she took another breath.
Charlotte returned to her knitting, trying to lose herself in the task at hand. Then, she heard it, the unmistakable noise of a porch board creaking. Her breath caught in her throat, and she returned her knitting to its basket. The porch creaked again, and then she heard the screen door open. She bit her lower lip as the front door knob turned. Charlotte jumped to her feet and moved to the crib, positioning herself between the crib and the door.
The old door opened slowly. She had not locked it, but she was certain it wouldn’t have mattered if she had. In walked a person, impeccably dressed in a gray, four piece suit with a bowler hat to match. The person closed the door and turned to size the room up in a perfectly casual manner. Charlotte wrapped her hand around the top of the crib and waited. The person looked at Charlotte and the face wasn’t cruel. It was shockingly kind and extremely amused. “Well, hello,” the person spoke with a warm and open smile.
“Hello,” Charlotte tentatively replied.
“You’re up past your bedtime,” they quipped.
“Haven’t been getting much sleep.”Her hand tightened around the crib.
“Usually I sneak in unseen, much like Santa Claus.” They smiled again, but this time it wasn’t as warm.
Charlotte took a steadying breath and assumed her full, five foot two frame. “I know why you’re here, and you won’t be taking him.”
“I don’t think you have any say over that.”
“You already got the Millers down the street, took all four of ’em, and the Turner’s two boys. You don’t need mine, too.”
The person cocked their head. “Again, I don’t think you have any say over that.”
Charlotte managed to stand a little taller. “I’m his mother. I think I do have a say.”
The person laughed lightly and removed their hat. “I know all about you, Charlotte Massey Reeves. Youngest of five, only girl in a house of boys. Grew up rough and tough. Never wanted to be a wife, or mother, but you were willing to become both when you married Frank Reeves in the spring of 1917. But then came the war, and Frank had to enlist. He went to France and you stayed here, had a son.”
Charlotte was not so steady on her feet now. “How do you know all that?”
The person smiled a third time, and this time it was anything but warm. “I’m Death. I know all kinds of things.” They looked around the room a second time. “Where is Frank now?”
“You took him,” she spat back at the figure.
Death laughed and it was far from comforting. “I assure you, ma’m, I have not.”
Charlotte’s heart sank. The telegram from the Army had said missing in action, but it hadn’t said dead. But as the months had drug on, Charlotte had just assumed. The last letter Frank had written her had been concerning. Frank had not been happy with the war. He had told her that if anything were to happen to him, that she was to move on, find another God-fearing man to raise his child. Charlotte was afraid he’d gotten himself killed on purpose.
“Do you know where he is?” she summoned the courage to ask.
Death looked at their hat, moving it from one hand to the other. They looked back at her, looking her directly in the eyes. “I don’t know everything, but I know he’s not with me. Could still be unidentified in a foreign hospital, or some prisoner camp?” they shrugged.
Charlotte shook her head. Frank had run off somewhere. That was the first thought she’d had when she’d received the telegram, but than death seemed easier to accept. Frank had loved her, sure enough, but he did have a wondering eye. She’d known that and had married him anyway, despite her better judgement. He’d probably found some French girl in need of help and . . . No, she couldn’t think about that now. Albert was all she had, she was sure of it, and she was all he had. Death would not be taking him tonight, she was sure of that.
“As pleasant as this all is, I do have business to conduct.” Death put their hat back on and set their jaw.
Charlotte inched back as far as she could, until the crib was against her back. “I’d like to propose a change.”
Death laughed full and loud. “This is different. I’m so amused, I’ll entertain your little game. What do you propose, Charlotte Reeves?”
Charlotte swallowed hard. “A drink and a game of cards.” She indicated the table set up by the window.
Death followed her gaze. “That does look inviting. What are the stakes?”
Charlotte released the crib and folded her arms across her chest. “I win, you don’t take Albert. He gets better and he lives a full life.”
“And if I win?”
Charlotte swallowed again, but her voice was clear. “You take us both.”
“You would do that for him?”
“We’re all each other has in this world. I won’t go anywhere without him,” Charlotte insisted.
Death smiled. “I’ll take those odds.”
Copyright Anne G’Fellers-Mason, 2020
I have to hop off and go prepare a gelatin-based salmon salad from an old, Knox Gelatine cook book. It’s job related, don’t ask. Being a historian is never boring. Watch for that video on the Chester Inn Museum’s YouTube channel next Saturday. I’m sure I’ll be linking it to next week’s blog.
Next weekend my work will be hosting our first ever Taste of Tennessee event featuring lots of local, foodie goodness. Check it out! The full program for August 22 is available at our website here.
See you all next week!