Guardian Mechanic (15sec)

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Pain. It was never a stranger. When they were still together, Freda once said he not only had a high tolerance for it, he seemed to embrace it. Her comment was made after he crashed his motorcycle on a rural backroad and pushed the bike a mile home with a freshly broken arm to grab a few beers before she could take him to the hospital. He didn’t even bother calling or texting ahead to let her know.

Over the years, he experienced two motorcycle mishaps: one on each of his bikes. The broken arm was courtesy of the first. The second yielded merely bruises and abrasions. For both, he considered himself lucky. Motorcycle mishaps don’t always end well and in each case, his life was merely inconvenienced and no one else was affected. However, as a result of a different vehicle crash when he was younger, he promised himself that if his driving ever harmed another again, he’d put himself down. And sometimes he wondered if the latter motorbike incidents were a subconscious and preemptive attempt to make good on that.

When considering the source of real pain, only one incident pervaded his mind: and it didn’t involve motorcycles.

For Briggs pain wasn’t broken bones. Or even headaches. He had learned to live with the migraines that started years ago with “the accident.” Back then — or before then — he was a wiry 23-year-old kid with black hair and an easy-going style. But afterward, he put on weight and could be characterized as sturdy with a bit of a beer belly. No one would say he was carefree. He became disciplined to a life of endurance. Although he was a decent and helpful fellow, if you talked with him for any length of time, a somewhat grim temperament would make itself known. Not a life-of-the-party kind of guy.

Physical pain was irrelevant compared to what really challenged him: the mental agony. A random cognitive wretchedness and occasional loss of self-control that could leave chaos in its wake, often featuring the faces of his haunted existence. Long ago he learned that if he didn’t prevail in solitude, he would later regret his interactions. Dents and scars on his truck provide reminders of the rage bouts when various moments of torment won out against his discipline to persevere alone in passive non-violence. Even Moses, his faithful German Shepherd, would become invisible at such times.

Moses was his fourth dog. One died from the feral pigs and the other two from old age and sickness. Yet, of the bunch, he had become the most attached to Moses. Perhaps it was because Freda gifted him the puppy for his 45th birthday. Or, maybe age opened the door to a type of attachment that Briggs lost so long ago.

Some shrink would probably have a field day describing the long-term effects of severe physical and psychic trauma from the accident. But to Briggs, none of that mattered. He considered it his cross to bear and to the degree he was capable, he avoided imposing it upon others.

But how could he not?

Although Freda tried, ultimately she couldn’t live with Briggs. He never hurt her. But the rage bouts sure made it seem a possibility. After five years of marriage, he could not disagree with her departure as a prudent choice. Nor was he pleased that she left. Afterward, his deterioration accelerated.

They never got divorced: neither wanted to pay the costs. But he made it clear he would not offer any resistance should she ever file the papers. Their segue from married to “friends” began more as a friction-burdened détente and eventually evolved into an uncommunicated but mutual agreement to aid each other when possible.

As years passed he would occasionally hear through others when she was dating someone new. But he never asked her about such. Apparently, none developed into a steady relationship.

Briggs fixed her recurring car problems and other times she stopped by to give him fresh-baked muffins, pies, cookies, etc. He sent her gift cards for her birthday and Christmas, although it was rare that such would arrive on time. He also gave her money now and again when she got behind with the rent. She was embarrassed to ask, but each time he’d have it for her the next day without comment and usually provided a little more than what she requested.

So, when she called to say her car broke down on Route 84, some 50 miles away in the middle of nowhere while returning from shopping, he postponed his Saturday yard work. After stowing some tools and engine coolant in the truck, he gave Moses a treat, patted him on the head and told him to watch out for the pigs. Then he left the driveway and pointed his black, Ford pickup east.

An hour later he popped open the hood and was inspecting the engine compartment of her ancient grey, Ford Fiesta with its worn interior. Briggs asked Freda to stand on the side of the car away from traffic. Situated next to an endless cotton field and featuring its signature peeling paint, the vehicle looked like it would be no stranger to random roadside incapacitation. Immediately he spotted the cracked hose. Fortunately, the leak was right where it connected to the radiator, which meant he could cut off the bad end with his knife, re-insert the black hose back onto the radiator connector and re-secure the clamp. Then he refilled the radiator with the coolant he brought and she was good to go. “Next week I can get you a new hose if you want. But I think this repair will do you fine for a while.”

“Should I start it to make sure it works?” Freda began walking around to the driver’s side, grateful, again, to turn a sporadic car malady into another painless recovery.

“Watch out, a truck’s coming.” There was no alarm in his voice since it was far enough away. But he had become overly attentive to all traffic since the accident, especially bigger vehicles.

Freda glanced down the road, noted a few cars and a distant truck and nodded affirmatively. The distance wasn’t worthy of comment and she quickly slipped inside and started the car.

He poked his head through the rolled-down, passenger-side window, “Give it a couple minutes to warm up so I can re-inspect the hose.”

Briggs stood up to watch the big rig cruise by the other side of the car. He affirmed to himself again, for the thousandth time: there’s no way that much weight can stop in time going that fast. And this guy didn’t even appear to be speeding. Briggs still couldn’t figure out why he survived that long-ago accident. Nor could he decide if “not” surviving would have been better. His earlier life was never going to return to the way it was before the bad days outnumbered the good. At least today was one of the better ones.

The engine was humming. He contemplated how long he’d kept this thing going with minimal cost. He helped her buy it when it was only slightly used and looked new. It should have been retired years ago, but it’s paid in full and works well enough most of the time. She said she’d keep driving it as long as she could.

He followed her back near town until their paths went different ways. At the house, he grabbed a beer and set himself on the lawn tractor to cut the grass.

#

The next day, Freda phoned to drop by with some fresh-baked goodies. He didn’t respond to her calls or texts, which meant he may have been preoccupied with a project or was out for a motorcycle ride, or shooting at the range, or he could have been out running errands or fishing and left his phone at home, which wasn’t unusual. She decided to drop by anyway to leave the muffins on one of the rocking chairs, in the shade of the front porch.

She made it to the driveway. But not the porch. Instead, she called 911.

#

An autopsy was performed for the unattended death, which determined he died from a heart attack. However, the fact that he had a gun in his hand and several bullets were found in the overturned lawn tractor led to speculation that a “moment” precipitated an assault on the tractor, overstressing his heart, aged well beyond his forty-eight years. Although shooting at anything other than established targets was unusual for Briggs, even Deputy Sheriff Dan didn’t say anything about it. He was an old classmate with Briggs when they both played high school baseball together and was an attendee at their BBQs years ago. In other words, he was familiar with Briggs’ history.

Freda couldn’t help to wonder if Briggs intended to shoot himself but turned it on the tractor at the last second. He had casually mentioned a few times over the years that he couldn’t imagine death being worse than living.

And since they were technically still married and he left no will or debts, she became the owner of a small house and property out in the country, a truck, two motorcycles, a few long guns, a handgun, an abused lawn tractor, a bunch of tools, a loving dog, a vegetable garden and some new utility bills.

The deceased had been cremated and the memorial service was simple. It was held near the bend of a local stream where Briggs used to fish. Some two dozen or so were in attendance, casually standing in a loose semicircle, which was officiated by his boss, Roger Dexter, better known as Dex.

Briggs had liked Dex, who had always treated him well, which was why he worked at the same place for so many years since he left the army. But he had confided to Freda in the past that Dex occasionally associated with shady characters.

At the service, the attendees included his work buddies, a few guys from the shooting range, and friends from years ago, including Deputy Sheriff Dan and his wife, Cheryl. Some of Freda’s friends and coworkers were also there, including Lizzie and her husband Harold, as well as Annabel. Other than Dex, Freda was the only other person who spoke to the group.

Dex told the assembled that Briggs took pride in fixing cars and a number of their long-time customers specifically asked for him as their main mechanic. He spoke of the patience Briggs would demonstrate with the younger guys when he helped them troubleshoot complex problems and offer solutions. He was also generous with his tools knowing it would take some years before they could afford what he had accumulated over the decades. He didn’t mention that sometimes Briggs needed extended breaks to walk off various moments, although they didn’t occur that often at work.

Freda was brief, stating “His regular self was caring and helpful. And as many of you know, he ain’t never been the same since the accident.” Her words were sincere and skirted the boundaries of grief. Yet she seemed to be offering justification for the way he lived and died — indeed, justification even for herself — since she, too, seemed forever trapped in a violent collision that only for the grace of God was she spared. Freda marginally maintained her composure, while looking down at the grass, stammering out her last words before returning to the group: “At least…at least he’s no longer troubled by…his pain.”

Of course, everyone was aware of the story. It was a notable small-town tragedy. They also knew that Freda would have been in the car with them on the way to the county fair, but she was called to work at the last moment to her waitress job to fill in for someone who was sick. And all who knew Briggs before the accident also knew he was never the same after it took away his sister, Wynona and his best friend, Chad, who were his passengers.

Wynona had introduced Briggs to Freda, who were friends on a women’s softball team from neighboring towns.

Dex concluded the funeral with a simple farewell, “Peace be with you, Briggs. Your service to others lives on.”

Freda distributed the ashes into the stream while Lizzie and Annabel added oak leaves and pine needles selected from his property.

Back at the house for the reception, Freda’s pies, muffins and cookies were laid out with enough food from others to feed everyone for a week.

Dex asked Freda if he should bring Briggs’ shop tools over, or if she might want him to sell them for her.

“I don’t know what to do about the house. So if you can sell them, that would help pay some bills.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to move in, since it’s paid for?”

“Sure, it would probably make sense, but…ya know… I don’t know that I could live with the memories.”

Dex glanced out the kitchen window to the backyard. Someone had finished cutting the grass. The tractor had been moved to the garage. The mighty oak tree stood guard over the flourishing vegetable garden. Moses was laying down in the same spot where he was when Briggs was found. “Well, it’s no surprise how well the place has been maintained. I’m going to say goodbye for now. If you need anything, give me a call.”

#

But Freda did move back in. Who knew how long an old house twenty miles from the nearest small town would take to sell. And she’d be paying the utilities until someone else became the owner. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be fair to take Moses to her apartment: it was too cramped for a dog accustomed to patrolling property and roaming the woods. And, of course, moving in and not paying rent would save her a chunk of change.

It didn’t look like much, but it had a good roof, a water heater that was only two years old, and Dex said the furnace was fine. All the appliances were in good shape. At least she could do the laundry at home again, which was a welcome improvement. However, she’d mostly wash the dishes by hand, as she had been accustomed, and save the dishwasher to clean up after baking.

The furniture hadn’t changed much since they were together, although he had resurfaced the floors in recent years. The original white oak reflected a sheen in between the throw rugs.

Dex helped sell her car and Briggs’ truck. And along with some money from early tool sales, she bought a 4-year-old Chevy compact SUV that Dex said was in good condition.

Now that she wasn’t paying rent, her waitress wages would have more breathing room at the end of each month.

#

It took some weeks to get settled in enough that she could lazily enjoy a coffee break. Lizzie, Annabel and her cousin, Denny, as well as one of his friends, helped her move out of the apartment. She gave furniture, kitchen and household things to each of them, partially as a gesture for their help and partly because she just wasn’t ready to get rid of Briggs’ stuff and she didn’t want to clutter up the house with too many redundant things.

Other than feeding Moses, she hadn’t paid him too much mind, mainly because she was too busy between getting resettled and her job at the restaurant.

She eased into her porch rocking chair, the exact same one from years ago. Brigg’s chair was closer to the door, where she used to leave muffins.

The coffee was no different than any other day, but it tasted better with her stuff moved in. Only as an unrealistic fantasy could she have ever imagined that she would be living here again.

At any time in the past two decades, if you had asked if she had been waiting for Briggs to get better, she would have said no. But her friends and coworkers thought differently.

Moses was content to lie next to her. It was the first moment of real peace she felt since…well…since she lived here in the past, before the accident. The large black walnut tree in the front yard had grown since she first viewed it from this spot. The pine trees that lined both sides of the property seemed about the same but some would be taller and some would have fallen from old age or various storms and hurricanes. The gravel driveway hadn’t changed much, and there was still hardly any traffic on the road.

Napping Moses started wagging his tail and popped his head up in alert before running off the porch towards the backyard. Not one to pay undue attention to the dog’s predilections, she was nevertheless inspired to stroll to the back, mostly to relaxedly assess the rear property.

The house had been rundown when Briggs’ parents bought it. His father wasn’t that interested in owning one, but his mom wanted them to be a homeowner after they had kids. After many years of saving, they finally settled in this place. Unfortunately, his mom didn’t get to enjoy it too long. They were only living here a year or so when she died of breast cancer after Briggs had joined the army, leaving his dad without a wife and his sister Wynona without a mom or brother at home.

The property was originally a farm, but an earlier owner sold the majority of the land to a neighbor, leaving the house and garage on three-quarters of an acre. Briggs’ dad had improved the house for the last decade of his life before he died of a heart attack, three months after their wedding. Then Briggs and Freda moved in. At their wedding reception, his dad told them that one day they would have the house and it would serve Briggs’ mom’s memory well to raise some kids of their own in it. Freda thought it fortuitous that his dad passed when he did because if he had been around just a little longer, he surely would have died of a broken heart when Wynona was killed in the accident or later when he observed how badly it impacted his son.

Freda could see the white paint was still in good shape and recalled Briggs painting it every few years: the last was two springtimes ago. Like the front, the backyard was lined with woods on either side but beyond the far property line was a pond, the neighbor’s cotton crop and a large grey barn off in the distance. It was the only visible structure from the front or back yards that wasn’t part of the property. There was also a vegetable garden with corn, tomatoes, peas and squash, surrounded by a double fence, situated near the big oak tree. Briggs had developed a green thumb after she left. Other than the tall oak, the most prominent backyard feature was the detached garage, which was originally a small barn with high ceilings and an unused storage loft. Moses was inside and skirted by the open front doors wagging his tail. She realized that other than riding the tractor in and out from just behind the doors, she hadn’t looked through it or even turned on the light for years. She took a sip of coffee before ambling over to give it a glance.

Once inside, she turned on the closest wall switch. An overhead light brought the center to life but left the rest mostly dark, although, as she recalled, if she chose to turn on all the lamps individually, it had a certain charm. She passed by the lawn tractor, two motorcycles and an old gas BBQ grill before arriving at the middle, which featured a motorcycle lift, adjacent to a small stool on wheels, a large, movable tool case and plenty of tools hanging on brown pegboard behind the workbench. There was also a full-sized stool by the workbench, that matched several others by the bar in the rear of the garage. Back there was also a couch, an old TV, a card table with chairs and a dartboard. Everything in the rear was covered in a hefty coat of dust, but the work area was clearly well used and other than a dusty patina, looked as if someone was due to return any moment, even though it had now been untouched for over three months.

They used to have BBQ get-togethers years ago with over a dozen in attendance on each occasion. Sometimes the guys would hang out in the garage and the women would go inside. Other times everyone sat outside in lawn chairs or in the barn.

But Briggs hosted no parties after she left.

Freda was startled to see a photo of herself hanging on the wall. Judging from the dust on the frame, it had been there a long time. But it sure wasn’t there when they were together. It was a photo taken when she was 18 at the fair, the first year they were going out. Deputy Dan’s wife, Cheryl, his then-girlfriend, took the picture. Cheryl gave it as a wedding gift after Briggs got out of the army, recalling that Briggs loved the photo when she first showed it to them.

And although that was true, what Cheryl never knew was that since the photo was taken before the accident, Briggs no longer liked the picture due to the Ferris wheel in the background and its reminder of the crash five years later.

Freda studied the photo from thirty years ago. Her eyes were happier then. Her hair was shiny blonde. She was thinner. And her face, well, she was young. If only she could see the world as nonchalantly as back then.

Moses had become more excited. Freda casually turned around towards the dog and instantly recoiled when she saw Briggs observing her with a pleasant expression. When her eyes reopened from an instinctive blink, all she could see was the bright open doors against the silhouettes of all she had passed — no one was there.

It took a few seconds to regain her wits and realize she had splashed lukewarm coffee on her shirt. She headed to the house to change, muttering to herself about clumsy reminiscing.

Moses remained in place, wagging his tail.

#

Later in the week, Dex came by with more cash. “The guys at the shop are buying up the tools as they can.” He gave her a handful of twenties. “Which means every two weeks they fork over some of their pay.” He gave her another receipt with a rolling summary of the payments. “It’s going to take several months before they’re all sold.”

Freda glanced at the receipt and then back at Dex. “Shouldn’t you be taking some kind of a commission?”

“Nah.”

“I mean I appreciate this and all. I really do. But I know how it’s extra work, too.”

“It’s OK Freda. I’ll see ya next time.” He walked towards his truck and then turned around. “Did Briggs mention them wild pigs have been getting worse?”

“He told me he shot a few.”

“How long has it been since you’ve fired a rifle?

“It’s been a while.”

“You may want to consider visiting the range, now that you’re back out in the country. Briggs said you used to shoot as a teenager, so it shouldn’t take much to regain your knack.”

“Thanks, Dex. Maybe I will. But I’ve never shot anything that was living and don’t intend to.”

#

Lizzie was a long-time coworker at Good Eats: A classic, no-frills diner that was well-regarded by the locals. Her husky voice, from over fifty years of smoking, was both endearing and direct. She was a no-nonsense grandmother with grey hair and a slight build who seemed to consider the entire community as her grandkids. She pointed out that Dex has been divorced for five years and Freda has been single for most of the past twenty. “Girl, you’re gonna need to move on at some point.”

“Lizzie, what am I gonna do? Get in a relationship like you and Harold? Many a time you’ve said yourself you wish you weren’t.”

“Yea, well, it ain’t always like that.” Lizzie and Freda were both walking out the back door after lunch, finishing the same shift. “And besides, now that you live out in the woods, well…whatever. At least you got some good doors and locks. Harold pointed them out to me at the reception.”

Freda chuckled, “I guess them feral hogs will need to look elsewhere to scrounge some pantries.”

“Honey, them wild pigs may be a nuisance to dogs and gardens, but I’d be more concerned about the wild methheads.”

“You sure worry a lot for an old lady.”

“Yea, well at least I’ve lived long enough to be called that. I’ll see ya tomorrow.” Lizzie sauntered a few steps and then continued, “Oh, by the way, I recall Dex likes pumpkin pie when he used to come in — before his divorce.”

“Thanks for the tip.” Freda’s sarcasm was pointed and she mentally debated whether Lizzie was more a friend or just a friendly pain in the butt. She resolved it was both and headed for her car.

#

“I know you know this, but it’s worth emphasizing: don’t ever point this at something you don’t intend to shoot.” Dex had agreed to meet her at the range. He was a large, rugged guy with silver and dark hair who was accustomed to giving orders and not saying much more than needed.

“I think this was the last one I had in my hands some years ago.” She pointed the revolver at the target and fired two shots. None hit the paper but did kick up tiny puffs of loose dirt in the back hillside.

Indeed, this was the last gun she held. But it wasn’t a friendly recollection. Briggs was in one of his moments when they were still together. They were watching TV. He left the living room without comment, sullen and cranky. Freda had learned it was best to just stay quiet and not make any avoidable noises at such times. She heard him walking around in an agitated fashion and then heard him head out the back. After a while, he walked back in and yelled, “I can’t take it anymore!” He thrust this revolver in her hand demanding that she shoot him. He repeated his demands for several minutes, getting more hectic until he went back outside and rode away, with the motorcycle engine aggressively accelerating into the night, leaving her crying until she went to sleep. The next day he apologized.

She told Lizzie the story, who listened attentively and said, with the most serious expression ever uttered by that woman, “You need to get out.” And indeed, within a few months, she was gone.

“Try to avoid jerking the trigger. Pull it as steady as you can.” Dex spoke as an unhurried coach.

Two of her next four shots hit the target.

“By the way, if you ever want to sell those motorcycles, I know someone who might be interested.”

She opened the cylinder and emptied the shells into a basket. “He really liked them bikes. I’m not gonna ride ’em and they ain’t doing no good in the barn.” She placed the unloaded revolver on the table and gazed out to the range with a wistful look. “I don’t know. Probably. But not yet.” She picked up the rifle and all four of her next shots hit the target.

#

Moses woke Freda up in the middle of the night. He was barking at the back door. While regaining consciousness from a deep sleep, the vestiges of a dream with Briggs began to evanesce away: he was so relaxed and easy-going. Just like before the accident. The last thing she recalled was him saying, I enjoyed our time together. You should…and the barking cut him off.

She got dressed, turned on the backyard floodlight and peeked out the kitchen window. Pigs were eating acorns under the oak tree that had recently started falling. Sometimes when she turned it on at night, deer, raccoons, possums, or skunks would wander or run away. But the pigs didn’t seem to care about the light. Maybe they thought it was a friendly gesture to help them get to the vegetables and untouched acorns, inconveniently protected behind a double fence, which meant more work for them.

She knew this moment was coming since she had seen some fresh digging at the garden fence that would have occurred prior to her moving in. And as more acorns fell from the oak, more pigs would be visiting.

The pigs weren’t so much an issue when she lived here in the past, but Briggs had mentioned they were multiplying. They were a serious concern to the farmers since they could uproot and destroy a lot of plantings in one night and then come back for more the next. Dogs can run them off, but sometimes the pigs, with greater numbers, will hang around and fight a single canine. The worst part is that they carry diseases that can kill dogs within a few days.

Freda grabbed the revolver and opened the back door. Moses launched from the kitchen towards the pigs while bugling an attack. It was a group of five, squealing into the night as a contralto against Mose’s fiercest growls. The smaller ones started retreating, but the biggest one, larger than the dog, squared off against Moses, while the next largest started flanking the hostile canine, with all engaged in a screeching, grunting and barking cacophony of belligerence sure to summon the devil. Before any creature could lay teeth into another, Freda fired high into the night air and called for Moses. Her actions had little effect. Then she swiftly walked towards the melee some thirty yards away, yelling for Moses, pointing towards the pig on the left, and firing again without aiming to hit it. The explosive sound plus the determined approach of a loud human in addition to the menacing lunges of the canine raised the threat level enough for the pigs to run off into the woods, with Moses in hot pursuit.

#

“Well, ain’t you a cowgirl, now!” Lizzie responded to last night’s encounter with an ambivalent mix of relief and concern while adjusting her apron. Relief that her friend was OK and concerned that such future encounters could turn sour.

“Fearless Moses seems to think he could take on the whole bunch. He has no idea they could do him some damage.” Freda checked the napkins and condiments as they were getting ready to open at 6:00 am, still 20 minutes away.

“So, why didn’t you grab the rifle?” Lizzie placed new filters and coffee into the pots, turned them on and yelled rearward to an invisible Annabel, “Bakery truck’s here!” The white van marked “Bainbridge Bakery. Best bagels in southwest GA,” was visible through the front windows as it pulled up to the front. Annabell, the owner’s thirty-year-old granddaughter, came up to unlock the door.

“The revolver was faster to grab.” Freda opened the bagel display case and began to lay out some fresh paper.

“Good mornin’, ladies.” Josh balanced a stack of trays featuring a few dozen bagels and doughnuts with their fresh-baked aroma.

Lizzie questioned Josh as if he’d been standing there the whole time, “Would you scare wild pigs from your garden with a pistol or shoot-to-kill with a rifle?”

Josh placed the trays on the counter and gave a clipboard to Annabel to sign. “My uncle Jed grows peanuts and he says you’ve got to kill ’em ’cause they’ll just keep coming back.”

Lizzie added, “Last night, Freda shot at a family of them to run them out of her yard.”

Annabel gave the clipboard back to Josh and joined the conversation, “You met my cousin, Denny, when we helped you move. He’ll come by and pick up any swine you bring down. He resells the meat for extra money.”

Josh picked up some empty trays and headed for the door, “Them pigs will be back.” Annabel reopened the door for his exit. Josh continued, “And so will I.”

#

Freda agreed to let Dex bring someone over to see the motorcycles. Dex took him into the garage, at first with Freda and Moses on a leash. Although Moses was not typically friendly to new visitors, for some reason he was particularly averse to this one. He was barking and lunging as Freda apologized and pulled him back into the house.

The guy didn’t stay too long and afterward, Dex met her on the front porch. “I don’t know if he’s going to buy anything, or not. I wouldn’t have brought him over if I didn’t think he was serious, but he changed his tune.”

Freda opened the door and let Moses run outside to probe the property. “That’s fine. There ain’t no hurry.”

Dex paused, “You know, you really should put a better lock on that garage.”

Freda studied his face, which hinted at an untypical concern. “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.”

#

That night Moses woke Freda up again with a fit of barking. She got dressed, took a peek out the window and gave a treat to Moses, although he would not quiet down. She grabbed the rifle, turned on the back floodlight, opened up the kitchen window and took careful aim at the closest pig. She studied the creature in her sights. It was digging hard. It wouldn’t be too challenging a shot. She observed the others further behind, all snorting and digging. She didn’t like them. But she did nothing.

After a while, she shot over their heads and let Moses out. At least this time he was able to chase them off without a direct confrontation. Although, once again, filling the night with squeals, grunts, and assertive barking.

#

Freda relayed the night’s tale to Lizzie and Jeremy, the manager, as they prepared Good Eats for another morning. Jeremy didn’t usually come in before opening, since he was the only one who regularly worked breakfast, lunch and dinner, which meant he usually didn’t arrive until 8:00am. Today he was in early to work on the monthly report for the owner and his accountant.

“I just couldn’t shoot the things.” Freda and Lizzie were wiping down the front while Jeremy poured himself the restaurant’s first cup of coffee for the day. Lizzie shouted to unseen Annabel in the back that Josh was pulling up. Billy, the morning cook, responded that Annabel was in the frig. Jeremy walked to the front and waited for Josh to sort out their bakery order and approach the door.

Lizzie responded, “Yea, I get that. I hate those critters but I sure as heck couldn’t shoot ’em.”

Jeremy opened the front door, “Hey Josh, good to see you.”

Josh entered with a stack of goodies, “Seems we’re gonna have another scorcher today.”

Lizzie responded without missing a beat, “Josh, does your uncle shoot the pigs himself?”

He placed the stack of bakery trays on the counter and gave the clipboard to Jeremy. “Oh yea, his wife won’t and the workers aren’t there at night.”

Annabel brought some pies up from the back. “Hi Josh.”

Jeremy counted the trays, signed the invoice and returned the clipboard. “Is he a good shot?”

Josh grabbed the empty trays, “I guess so. He did say it gets easier.” He started walking towards the door, “You killed any pigs yet, Freda?”

She stopped cleaning. “Nah, I’ve got to get up my nerve.”

Josh paused at the door, “No worries. You’ll have plenty of opportunities. ‘Cause just like me, they’ll be back.”

Jeremy closed and relocked the door. “Freda, I haven’t hunted in a while, but one thing my dad taught me was to always try to kill with one shot so the animal doesn’t suffer.”

Annabel chimed in, “If you let Denny bring them to the meat processing plant, any without disease can feed others.”

“Thanks guys. But first I’ve got to get up my nerve. It’s not like they’re trying to kill anyone.”

#

Moses woke Freda in the middle of the night with aggressive barking. She wasn’t in a hurry to get up. She knew the pigs weren’t going anywhere, and she didn’t want to deal with them.

She grabbed the rifle and walked into the kitchen. When she peeked out the kitchen window she was puzzled not to see any shadow movements by the garden. But it only took another few seconds to see that Moses wasn’t barking at pigs. Someone was by the garage.

In retrospect, she wished she hadn’t let Moses out. But the fact is, her heart was racing and she didn’t think. She turned on the floodlight and opened the door just like she did with the pigs. Moses launched in the direction of two men, each of them pushing a motorcycle from the garage.

When she described it to the deputy sheriff a little later, she said it all happened so fast she wasn’t exactly sure of the sequence, other than the shots. The men stopped pushing the bikes when the light came on and Moses lept towards the closest one on the right while the other on the left pulled a handgun and shot at Moses. That man immediately became the recipient of a single bullet from Freda. It’s not as if she planned to, it just happened. She said it was as if someone else pulled the trigger before she was ready. He collapsed behind the second bike as he and Moses disappeared behind the closest motorcycle, placing both guys mostly out of view.

Amidst some violent barking and growling, Moses let out a yelp before his antagonism started to dissipate. Freda dialed 911 and just after the operator answered, she heard another gunshot. Freda relayed what happened and then described a man limping away down the driveway towards a white van. She observed a motorcycle ramp leading up to an empty interior with both rear doors wide open. She told the operator the man had a knife in his left hand and a gun in his right and he appeared to be covered in blood. She said she didn’t see the other guy.

The operator asked if her doors were locked. Freda relocked the kitchen door and walked around to ensure all her doors and windows were closed and locked. The operator advised her to keep the outside lights on and the inside lights off. She said help was on the way and to stay calm and alert and to stay with her on the phone and describe what was happening. Freda narrated as the man pushed the ramp inside, closed the doors and drove off. The van was too far away to read the license plate. Freda went back to the kitchen and relayed that she didn’t see any movement in the back and that Moses wasn’t barking. The operator asked if she could see the man or the dog. Freda responded that there appeared to be someone on the ground on the other side of the motorcycles and asked if she should go outside and check. The operator advised that she stay inside and said help will be there soon.

An eternity of moments later the operator said the deputy sheriffs arrived and could she confirm there was no one else in the house or any visible movement outside? Freda confirmed that no one else was in the house. When she peeked out the corner of the kitchen window she said she didn’t see any movement in the back. She crouched down and peeked out the corner of the living room window towards the front and said she could see two deputies approaching the back with guns drawn and a police car parked on the side of the road.

The operator asked if she could go back to a rear window and see if she could observe any motion in the back. Freda reported no other motion until both deputies appeared in the driveway on the other side of the motorcycles pointing their guns at the same target on the ground.

The operator advised Freda that more help was on the way and she should stay inside until someone knocked on the door and identified themselves as a deputy sheriff and that she should confirm that it was someone in uniform and that she should have no weapons in her hands before opening the door.

#

The driveway was filled with vehicles through much of the night. When the deputies came to the door, she was told her dog had been stabbed and shot. Later, after taking her statement, she was informed the man on the ground died on the way to the hospital. Based on her story and the evidence, it was likely that the man who got away stabbed the dog, retrieved the gun and then shot the dog before leaving.

Freda cried when she received the news about Moses and the stranger but had already suspected the worst.

Right before she finally drifted off to sleep, Briggs appeared and said she did good.

#

Deputy Dan came by the next day to provide good news and bad news. He confirmed that no charges would be filed against her regarding the dead intruder. Furthermore, the guy had a long rap sheet and was bound to end up dead one of these days and she had done herself and the community a service by reducing one criminal from the environment.

The bad news is that the dead guy’s partner was still at large. And they suspect his partner was his brother, with a longer rap sheet. He’d been in and out of jail several times for repeated drug and larceny charges and was also a suspect for rape and murder. The worst part is that he may return seeking vengeance for his dead brother. He said he’d have some deputies drive by at night to keep an eye on the place when they could, but that she should be vigilant.

#

Before the end of the week, she confronted another pig party. This time there was no Moses to wake her, but she sure wasn’t sleeping easy and heard them behind a house of fully locked windows and doors. She turned on the lights, surveyed the back and front yards, before returning to open the kitchen window.

By now she had hung a string, dangling with empty food cans, across the yard and garden. The cans were just high enough to be near the heads of the largest pigs.

She fired at the cans until their clanging bullet hits spooked the pigs away. Yet, their departure wasn’t as quick as she hoped. She surmised that it wouldn’t take long for the pigs to ignore the clanging and resigned herself to the recognition that the string of cans wasn’t going to be an effective solution.

Freda closed and re-locked the window and kept the floodlight on. Only then was she able to get some inadequate, on-again, off-again shut-eye.

#

Dex came by later in the week with another cash payment for tool sales and listened to her repeat the tale that was the talk of the town. He sat down on the porch and offered a warning. “Freda, the cops aren’t gonna tell you this, but if that guy comes back, make sure he’s dead.”

“What if he turns around and walks away when I turn on the lights?”

“You’ve got to shoot him anyway. And if he’s not dead, shoot him again until he is. No cops will challenge you about the details if he’s dead on your property.”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t think. Just do it. And by the way, if you haven’t pushed some recent shells through that shotgun, you should do so. Get cozy with it, cuz that’s what you’ll want if someone gets in the house.”

“Do you really think he’s crazy enough to come back? He knows I’ve got a gun.”

“Freda,” Dex conveyed a grave tone, “heed these words: he’s absolutely crazy enough.”

She hardly slept at all that night.

#

For the next few weeks, Freda set up more cans for target practice in the backyard. Just like her father did for her when she was a teenager.

Her accuracy with the rifle was already good, but she was getting better. She also practiced with the handgun and shotgun, although she didn’t like the latter with its bigger kick and louder volume. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like if she ever had to shoot it inside the house.

#

Lizzie had been sullen at work after all the action at Freda’s house two weeks earlier. But she feigned a little more positivity when Freda described her regular shooting practice. “Well ain’t you a modern Annie Oakley!”

#

After weeks of ongoing anxiety, Briggs joined her when she was finally able to get some real sleep. In all her life, she didn’t pay her dreams much mind and didn’t usually recall them. But this one seemed so lucid. They were sitting in their respective porch chairs, each sipping a beer. Briggs was telling some light-hearted tale about nothing. And then he stopped rocking and looked at her intently. It’s time. He seemed to be offering a warning about something she ought to know. She felt alarmed and dropped her beer, which startled her awake. The last thing she recalled was him saying, I’m with you.

Except there was no broken beer bottle.

It was a breaking window.

Freda suppressed a scream and quickly jumped out of bed. Partially terrorized and partially operating on some type of automatic response or guiding hand, she launched into action. Put on pants. Grab the rifle. No. Not this time. Instead, she grabbed the shotgun and stashed the pistol in her waist.

Sounds were still coming from the front living room window. A barely visible shadow of an arm attached to a thick glove extended in and around the broken window, pushing and pulling more glass out of the way. Some of it was falling in the living room and some of it was pulled outside, past the dangling screen that had been cut and pulled aside.

She retreated to the kitchen, dialed 911 and left the phone on the counter before switching on the front and rear floodlights. Shortly after the lights came on, she heard a shot. When she poked her head into the living room she confronted two realizations: the front light had been shot out and a fiery road flare was being tossed into her living room through the broken window as a figure withdrew and ran to the side. The room radiated with an intense, flickering, yellow glow. She heard another shot and instinctively realized the back floodlight had just been shot out, which confirmed the intruder was in the rear. She hastily lifted the flare and threw it back out the broken window, although it had already filled the room with a pall of acrid smoke, irritating her eyes and making it hard to breathe.

Then the kitchen window was shattered and once again a gloved hand was clearing glass. Freda anticipated another flare. Without thinking, she dashed over to the kitchen door, unlocked and slammed it open, while simultaneously pointing in the direction of the intruder, just ten feet away, as he lit another flare with a distinctive pop. The rear profile of a man twirled around in reaction to the opened door. It appeared his last intention was to throw the flare at her while grabbing for something in his belt.

The shotgun explosion knocked him back, sending the flare somersaulting in the air before landing adjacent to him, with the shooting flame burning across his throat and chin. In spite of screaming to herself, she gave way to the rush of adrenaline and a crazed survival instinct. Her revolver seemed to be pulled out without any conscious decision and she fired three times at the man’s head as his burning flesh was starting to unleash an awful smell. Yet, she made no motion to kick the flare away.

As if directed by some preternatural perception, she spun around with tears streaming down her face, to see another man overrunning the corner of the house, coming from the front. As soon as he was exposed to the sulfurous illuminance, he began to raise a gun towards her and was instantly felled by two shots. Freda dashed to the corner of the house and quickly peeked one eye around to see if anyone else was visible. The front yard walnut tree and driveway were eerily illuminated by the palpitating radiance. Seeing no one else, she stepped over to the figure on the ground and fired into his face with her last bullet.

Shocked and dismayed, while crying aloud and channeling some higher force, she retreated back into the smoky house, reloaded the revolver, added another shell to the shotgun and prowled around each of the windows, looking outside for any motion, while stifling coughs from the hazy fumes and blinking her itchy eyes. The trees in the front and back yards appeared ominously forbidding, reflecting the burning flares in such a way that made it seem the house was on fire.

The horrid smell of burning flesh was seeping in through the broken kitchen window, but she didn’t see anyone else.

Freda picked up her phone from the counter and with a weeping, choking voice, managed to croak, “Is anyone there?”

“This is 911. Help is on the way. Can you tell me what’s happening?”

Freda sobbed, coughed and returned the phone to the counter. She staggered back outside and across the driveway before collapsing into a seated position, leaning against the garage, with shotgun to hand. The stench of burning flesh choked her senses while the pulsing firelight in the back and front of the house shimmered and glowed through her tears.

#

Dex came by with some more tool-sales cash. “I heard you handled things professionally last week.”

“Well, I don’t know about professionally, but I survived.” Freda was tired of talking about it. Police, reporters, friends, past friends and people she hardly ever spoke with were calling and visiting. She politely accepted casseroles, lasagna and flowers from visitors, but didn’t invite anyone in. And the cards. Even the mailman had taken time to get out of his truck and hand-deliver a stack of them from well-wishers while she was rocking on the porch. She had taken vacation time off from work to tend to the house, as well as herself, and dreaded going back to answer all the questions from her regular customers. She had the broken windows fixed by a business in a nearby town and was pleased the guy hadn’t heard about what happened. Or at least he didn’t ask any questions. The burned living room rug was thrown out and she already bought a replacement. End-of-summer breezes worked their way through the open doors and windows to carry away the smells. She also took some long drives around the region to see some parks she hadn’t visited in many years. Freda wondered if she’d ever clear her head.

“Listen, I wasn’t sure if you want to know this or not, but I figured I’d tell you, in case you might hear about it, anyway.”

Freda studied his face, attempting to anticipate what could possibly be next. At first, she felt she couldn’t handle any more bad news. Yet, spontaneously, she stood a little straighter and became inspired: she determined that from now on, she could handle whatever came her way.

“Do you recall that fella that I brought by to look at the bikes?”

Freda nodded, “I remember you brought him by. But since I took Moses in so quickly, I don’t remember his name or much about what he looked like.”

“He got himself killed.” Dex paused. “He was found in a dumpster down in Gainesville with two bullets to the head.” He looked directly at Freda, “I’m sorry I brought him by. He may have been connected to the Dalton brothers. It would be better for those bikes to go to the shop for people to see, rather than bringing strangers here.”

Freda sensed there was something he wasn’t saying. For some reason, she wanted to ask if he had anything to do with his death. “Do you think it’s over?”

“It’s over.” Dex seemed more certain than any uninvolved person should be.

She resolved to let it go.

#

Deputy Dan came by again. “You probably read in the paper that both those guys were wanted criminals. The one with the flares was indeed Joey Dalton, the brother we were after. The other guy was getting ready to leave the country since there were some texts in his phone confirming an upcoming visit to Mexico. It appears his role on your property may have been to document the event. His phone had a video that was taken from the front yard. It showed Dalton tossing the flare in before heading around the house. Then it showed the flare being tossed out a little later. The video stopped after the shots were heard, which would have been when he ran to the back. It’s also possible he was going to grab or shoot you if you ran out the front.”

Freda asked with some resignation, “Is it true that flare burned that Dalton guy’s throat all the way through and decapitated him?”

“I don’t know about that, but the coroner said he never saw anything like that before.”

“How do you live with yourself after killing people?”

Dan considered his words. “It’s never easy. But these are some bad guys.” He looked away as if surveying the property before returning to the conversation with a confiding tone. “By the way, the reason the video guy was wanted, was for torturing, raping and murdering another woman, while also video recording the event.” He let that sink in. “Freda, no matter what’s going through your mind about all this stuff, what you did needed to be done.”

#

A few days later, Freda awoke to familiar sounds. Nuisance sounds. She wasn’t so unconcerned that she could go back to sleep, but nor was she in a hurry to get out of bed. She didn’t even bother putting on her pants. She turned on the backyard floodlight without looking through the kitchen window first. There were no more cans hanging in the back since she retired them for a new approach.

She opened the window, pointed the rifle and fired three times in quick succession. The grunts and squeals stopped. She went back to bed.

As she was drifting off, Briggs appeared in his rocking chair, beer in hand. She was reminded of when he spoke to her before he left for the army, although back then he talked of coming back and starting a life together. This time his words offered a genial finality. We’ll meet again, someday. In the meantime, you should move on. Try to find some enjoyment.

#

As usual, other than the dreams, Freda relayed the night’s shooting tale to her coworkers and Annabel called her cousin and said Denny would be by after he was off from work to remove the pigs.

Sure enough, Denny came by and hauled three carcasses over to his pickup and tossed them inside. “I’ll get paid on this pretty fast. I can give you a cut.” Denny was an energetic and friendly man. He was divorced, said he was on good terms with his ex and loved to talk about his kids. One was in her first year at college with an academic scholarship. The other was a promising baseball player in his senior year who was also looking into starting his own business.

“That’s alright. You’re doing me enough of a favor just taking them away.”

“Let me give you my number for next time.” He wrote down his info and jumped into the driver’s seat and shouted out the window, “By the way, that was some good shootin’ you did.”

She waved and watched him start to drive away, but he came to a stop after moving only a few feet. He got back out without turning the truck off and returned with a quick pace.

“I just had an idea.” Denny’s face was animated. “What would you say about me bringing you a puppy? A guy I work with has some new black labs and I can get you one.”

Before she could respond, he went on, “They’re beautiful, happy creatures. Any of them would love it here.”

Freda chuckled, “Why don’t you bring one by so we can meet?”

“Sure thing!” Denny started walking quickly back to the truck. “You’ll love him! I’ll be back in a few days.”

#

The next time Dex came by, Freda presented him with a fresh-baked pie. “I don’t know where my manners have been for the past few months.”

Dex smiled while accepting the gift, still warm from the oven.

“I want to thank you again for everything.” Freda felt at ease giving away baked goodies.

“By the way, the shop tools are almost all gone, but if you want, you’ve got more in your barn that I can sell.”

#

Denny came by the next day with a silky, black lab puppy, just bursting with energy. “This little guy spoke to me. He said I just had to bring him to you.”

Freda laughed. “He’s beautiful. Thanks.” She took him into her arms. “I have something for you, too.” She brought the puppy in and put him down next to Moses’ water and food bowls and filled them both. The puppy’s tail was wagging faster than seemed possible.

She washed her hands, covered the awaiting plate and contents with clear wrap and brought them out to the front porch. “I baked you something. I appreciate your help.”

Denny’s face lit up. “I love muffins. Thanks a ton!”

#

Lizzie and Annabel were preparing Good Eats for another morning when Annabel teased, “Denny really likes those muffins.”

“Well, don’t read too much into that. I made a pie for Dex, too.”

Lizzie chuckled, “Well, you may be Annie Oakley, but you’re still Freda the baking queen.”

Freda tightened her apron and headed to the front, “It’s time to move on.” She started wiping down the counter with a little more vigor and a slight smile.

by George Alger