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Kindness Remembered

by Gail Alston 12 months ago in Short Story
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An unlikely friendship

Kindness Remembered
Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

The young woman ran as fast as she could through the thick brush and cluster of trees. It was getting dark and the summer heat was stifling. The North Carolina summers could be that way. She could hear the men yelling to each other behind her as she took a rest to catch her breath. Get her! Where is she?! Anybody see her?! We gonna end this night with a bang!

It was 1917. The war was four months old. Mary Leah was about to turn eighteen and looking forward to attending nursing school in the fall. She wondered now if she would live to see that day at all. She stumbled a bit further before feeling a hand on her forearm. She pulled feverishly trying to free herself.

“Shhh. Shhh.” She heard the voice urge her. “Please. I’m not gonna hurt you. I promise. Please.” The voice continued. She stopped fighting long enough to see his face. Was this white boy trying to help her? She wondered. “You see. Right there. That old barn. Hide there. I’ll come back for you when it’s safe. What ever you do, don’t leave that barn until I come for you. Okay?” He said in a whisper. Mary Leah didn’t know why but she trusted him. She saw the barn more clearly as she ran toward it. The weather-beaten wooden shell looked haunted as she watched the loose boards move with the hot summer breeze. Her fear of what may be inside was lessened by the fear of what was behind her. She squeezed inside through a whole in the door. She could barely see the stacks of hay piled randomly around her. As she ran to the very back of the barn, she could still faintly hear the yelling of the group of boys that had been chasing her. She squeezed her way between some piles of hay and crouched down to try to stay hidden. She sat there trying to get a hold of her fear, hoping she wouldn’t be found and she waited. She waited for the white boy who saved her.

The hours passed. She knew her family would be worried sick about her. It was dark now and she should’ve been home helping with supper. She thought about all the choices that lead her to sitting in an abandoned barn by herself, hiding. She never should’ve agreed to stay later to polish that silverware for Mrs. Berklin. It took longer than she would’ve liked but Mrs. Berklin made such a fuss over having it done for her ladies luncheon the next day. But she offered to pay her for the extra time and she could use the extra money. It was close to six o’clock by the time she was done and everyone she could have gotten a ride from was already gone for the day. Mary Leah had no choice but to walk if she wanted to get home at all. She felt her heart stop when she heard noise coming from the front of the barn.

“Hello. Hello. Are you still here?” The voice called out. “I’m John Baker. I’m the one who told you to hide here. If you’re still here, you can come out. The other guys are gone. It’s safe now.”

Mary Leah poked her head out from behind the piles of hay. “I’m still here.” She said as she made her way out into the open. “My name Mary Leah. John, was it?” She asked. She could see him smile as he approached her, in her uncertainty, she took a few steps back.

“Oh no. You don’t have to be afraid of me. I would never hurt a lady.” He tried to reassure her. But he could see she was still apprehensive. But who could blame her? Negro women were a target in the South. They weren’t safe anywhere or anytime. “I thought you might be hungry, so I brought you something to eat. There’s some fried chicken and my mama’s famous cornbread. Well, it ain’t really all that famous but it is really good. My mama she’s a really good cook.” He said nervously. “Come on. Sit right here and have some. I’ll sit across over here so you don’t think I’ll try somethin’.” He said as he sat the bundle in his hands down and took a seat on a stack of hay. Mary Leah made her way over to the bundle of food and sat on a stack of hay across from John. As she unwrapped the cloth, she could smell the warm cornbread leap from within.

“It does smell really good. I haven’t had anything to eat since one o’clock this afternoon.” She said with a smile just before taking a bite. “You’re right. It is really good.”

“Told you.” He said with a chuckle. Mary Leah smiled and relaxed a little. She knew now that he was telling her the truth. He wasn’t there to hurt her.

“Who were those guys you were with?” She asked. “Don’t seem like you would be hanging around with them.” She saw John’s head drop a little.

“They ain’t so bad usually. Grew up with them.” He replied solemnly.

“I don’t suspect your mama know what they could be like.” She responded.

“No, she doesn’t.” He answered.

“I suspect she wouldn’t be too happy with you if she did.” She said calmly.

“No, she would not.” John said with a nervous chuckle.

“Why did you help me?” Mary Leah asked.

“I didn’t want to be apart of or know about anything bad that might of happened to you. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if it did and I wouldn’t be the person my mama raised me to be. They were drunk, too much beer. What were you doin’ walkin’ on the road so late?” He asked.

“Was working later than usual.” She replied.

“What you do?” John asked.

“Maid for the Berklin’s on Main St.” She answered.

“I work down the street at the furniture store. We delivered some chairs at the Berklin’s a few days ago.” He said excitedly.

“I thought you looked familiar. You gonna work there forever?” She asked.

“No. I’m off to the Army tomorrow morning. I got drafted.” He said plainly.

“Drafted! They sending you to fight in the war?” She said with a little worry in her voice.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were worried about me Mary Leah.” He said with a smile.

Mary Leah stood up and handed John the cloth he bundled the food in. “I should be getting home.”

“Let me drive you. It’s dark now. Even less safe than it was before.” He replied.

“No, no. It’s not too far. I can make it fine.” She responded.

“I insist. I’ll be worried sick if I didn’t. I’d have to go by the Berklin’s to make sure you got home alright and I don’t rightly know what excuse I’d use.” John insisted.

“All right.” She agreed hesitantly.

Mary Leah had him stop his truck a block away from her house. She hopped out after making sure there wasn’t anyone around. She thanked him for his kindness and continued down the street to her home. She glanced out the window to see him slowly ride by to make sure she made it inside. That night before bed she had a special mention of him in her thoughts.

Mary Leah was surprised to get that first letter from him in the mail. It had been six months since that night in the old barn. She decided that she would answer his letter from the front and before she knew it, they were writing each other two or three times a month. She told him of her studies in nursing school and how well she was doing. He told her of the new friends he had made during boot camp. She told him the gossip around town since he’d been away. He told her of the loss of those friends he had made during his time oversees. As the war came to a close and the soldiers came home, she’d hoped she’d see him as well. John’s last letter said he had one last mission and he’d be home. She waited at the bus station all day looking intently for those green eyes that smiled at her in the dimness of that old barn. She never saw them. She asked the station attendant about another bus but he explained that the last bus for the night had arrived and moved on an hour before.

She woke the next morning and headed for class. When she arrived, she saw all the girls gathered together, hovering over a newspaper. As she walked over, she saw a few of them crying and the others reading names out loud. She realized they were reading the names of local war dead. She waited patiently for the girls ahead of her to finish looking and slowly raised the paper. She read each name listed in alphabetical order, slowing down when she got to the B’s. Her breath got caught in her throat when she saw it, the name, his name, Baker John D. Mary Leah felt her heart stop. He’s dead, she thought. She saw those green eyes of his once again in her head as she turned and walked out of the room. She felt the first tear fall as she walked down the front stairs of the building. She kept walking thinking of all the things she shared with John over the last year. They had become friends. A negro girl and a white boy were friends and her heart was broken at the loss of him. She looked up suddenly and realized where she was. She had walked all the way to where that old barn had sat. She made her way through the woods to the weather-beaten door. She placed her hand against it and cried as she recalled the kindness he showed her. “I’ll never forget what you did for me John. Never.” She whispered through the tears.

So many years had gone by. Mary Leah had married, had children and grandchildren. She had left North Carolina for New York many years before always returning home at least once a year. She had never missed a year on the anniversary of John’s death, to remember the boy who became her friend, that kept her safe on a hot North Carolina night at an old barn in the woods.

Short Story

About the author

Gail Alston

Single mother of one, doting aunt and sister. I have been writing since the age of thirteen. I consider myself more of a poet of which my favorite is Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I am in complete love with English prose...

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