Title: A Land in Drought
Word Count: 872
Notes: Edited by the fantastic brightwithstars
Penny stares down at her black iced tea, an immeasurable weariness sweeping over her. She already knows how this will play out. They’ve gone through it twice before.
The girl’s name is Olivia. She’s still in the same simple shift, still got skinned knees and a messy bun and bare feet — that guitar still slung around her shoulder, only thing in the whole world she still owns.
That first time Olivia’d come to see Penny’s husband, she’d been soft-spoken and polite, begging an unmoving Henry on bent knee. The second time, she was firm and demanding — having taken notes from her previous failure — and stayed composed, speaking in a level voice. Henry was still unmoved.
This time there’s a fire in Olivia’s eyes. She plants her feet firmly in their dirt driveway, prepared to bargain til the sun burns out. “Give her back,” she says plainly. A dry breeze kicks up dust around her feet, flutters her threadbare white dress. She doesn’t look like any kind of a threat, just a sad and lonely lost girl.
Henry shakes his head, leaning against the porch railing. “She came here freely. She came to me, looking for work.” A pause and then, “You could join her out in the fields.” The closest to kindness Henry is capable of.
“You got your work done. You’re killin’ her now. Give Elena back.”
“I invested in her.” Her husband does not shout; he’s not a shouting kind of man. He doesn’t have to be. “You know what kinda state she was in when she got here. Took time and money getting her better. What could you give me worth all that effort I put into her?”
“Henry, stop.” Penny’s own voice, quiet, warning. Just let her go, she’d said to him after the last visit, but Henry had been adamant in his decision, insisting Olivia’s girl — Elena — was safer here. They’re all safer here. Yes, they work hard, but I offer protection, don’t you see? — but Penny didn’t, not then and not now, staring at Olivia’s slight frame all alone in front of them.
Her husband doesn’t respond to the words, continues staring at Olivia like they’re the only two present, and Penny feels that rift between them yawn wider. She sighs, sips her tea, and offers Olivia an apologetic look. Penny’d lost this fight once. She didn’t have the heart to keep at it, not anymore.
“I’ll give you a song.” Olivia slings the guitar around, already tuning.
Henry laughs, a dry crackling campfire sound. “A song?”
“It’s all I have.” Olivia strikes a chord and begins her song.
Later, Penny wouldn’t be able to say what all the girl had sung, nor what notes had sounded. Right now she just watches as Olivia’s fingers dance across the strings, pulling out sounds of sunshine and rainstorms and late July evenings watching fireflies — listens, as she sings a tale of love and heartsickness and longing and needing.
And later, maybe, if Penny is asked how she’d felt to hear that song, she’d answer something like a land in drought.
It’s not perfect: a couple of chords hit sour and Olivia’s voice wavers with emotion and lack of training. But it’s pure and honest and Penny finds herself crying.
Olivia finishes her song, rests her hands softly on her guitar. “You may have saved her body, sir, and I thank you for that, but you’re killing her soul. Please let her go.”
“She’s safe here,” Henry says.
“Yes sir,” says Olivia. “But safe don’t mean happy.”
“Henry,” Penny pleads.
Henry turns towards her, looking at her for the first time in days. He takes in the tear-tracks, her shaking shoulders. She meets his gaze, unflinching for the first time ever.
“Go,” he says, finally, his back still turned away. “Go and get your girl.” He stays there, unmoving, watching Penny — who watches Olivia’s face light up as she runs towards a figure now free of the fields.
He watches as she watches the two girls run towards the distant road, hand in hand. The sun is fading in the sky; there’s a bit of relief from the heat. Penny thinks it might rain soon.
“I keep you safe.” Henry comes to her, kneels before her. He takes her hands in his.
Penny pulls herself free, offering him a reassuring smile as she does so. She reaches for the pitcher between them, refilling her own glass and then offering it to Henry. He ignores it, keeping his hand on her knees.
“Are you happy?”
She considers her answer carefully as she returns the pitcher, drinks her tea. A breeze picks up, bringing with it the promising scent of a nearby storm. “I was.”
“Not so much anymore though.” It isn’t a question.
The girls are so far away they look like one figure. Their laughter carries back on the wind.
Silence. Penny watches a red truck stop, pick up the girls, and carry them away. Be happy.
“Do you think it’s too late for us to fix that?”
Penny smiles as the first splatter of rain makes a pattern in the dry dirt. “No. I think I would like to try.”