Flash Fiction: Only So Far (1439 words)

Galen was not home when Tarra came back at the end of her work day. He was supposed to be at the table, bread and cheese and yesterday’s happy find of fresh carrots and zuchinni spread on the table for dinner. Instead, the house was dark as Tarra approached, and she spent ten minutes lighting the lamps and calling his name in every room upstairs and down, looking for him.

She exhausted every cranny that a seven-year-old could stuff himself into. Then she stood at the base of the stairs, listening for him. All she heard was her heart beat.

He was not home.

And the house was too empty.

Wrapping herself back into her coat, she snuffed the lamp, and ran outside. She knocked on one neighbor’s door, then the others. Neither Arri nor Ceddir had seen him. Ceddir who usually sat at his front window all afternoon putting in hems and patches, hadn’t even seen him come home.

Tarra swallowed, thanked them, and ran back up the road into the lower parts of the town. Her workshop was farther up the hill, but Galen worked at a little airy place close to the docks. If she ran – and she did – she could reach it in fifteen minutes. She had to pound on the door before the master carpenter – a round-faced man with a rosy bald spot – interrupted his dinner for her.

“Is Galen here?” Tarra asked, a little too breathless for a greeting. She crossed her arms tight over her stomach.

The carpenter shook his head. “No,” he said. “I sent him home hours ago.”

“Hours?” Tarra asked.

The man nodded. He reached back inside for his own coat, hanging on a hook. “He isn’t home? Let me help you look for him.”

Tarra took a half step back, shaking her head. “No. Thank you. I’m sure he’s just stayin’ with someone.” She spun away, and ran back toward home.

If he’d been on the street, Arri or Ceddir would have seen him. He must have wandered somewhere else.

The Old Street was likely. Galen knew how to get there on his own, and it wasn’t too far from home. Deidei had the end house on the row, and her house was always noisy, her chairs always filled with people, her kitchen always stocked with something tempting.

For a moment, Tarra ran faster. Then she ran slower, suddenly concerned that it made too much sense, and Galen had a habit of not making sense to her.

But no, he’d gotten out of work hours earlier than usual. He wouldn’t have wanted to sit around the house by himself. It was possible he was at Deidei’s. Tarra started to run again.

It took her four long runs, and three sharp turns between to reach her back door. Voices drifted through the cracks in the frame, and she could smell something sweet and sturdy simmering on the stove. Someone was playing a fiddle, quietly, like it was just an a way to entertain idle fingers.

Tarra knocked on the door, hard. None of it came to a stop, but heels thudded against the floorboards and the door swung open.

It was Deidei and she smiled as soon as she saw her. She looked back over her shoulder immediately, hands still braced on the door. “Galen! Your sister is here!”

Tarra let out a breath, let her shoulders slump forward, shut her eyes.

When she looked up again, Deidei was looking at her more carefully. “Why don’t you come in?” she asked. She stepped back, and pulled the door just a little wider. “I’ve got plenty to go around.”

Tarra hesitated. She liked Deidei well enough, but her house was always full. Tarra had liked noise well enough once, but these days it seemed to press on her, hold her shoulders a little too tight. She wavered, ready to turn back toward the street.

Deidei leaned back a little more, let go of the door with one hand. A firmer invitation.

“All right,” Tarra said. She put one foot over the threshold, and pulled herself inside.

There were six people around the fireplace, men and women, with their boots and coats forgotten by the door. Tarra peeled her own coat off, and wrapped it over one arm. Galen sat between them, listening to the conversation with his arms wrapped around his knees. His blonde curls were orange in the firelight. His shirt was dirty with saw dust, and his breeches dusts with dirt in hand prints, but he sat, smiling, relaxed.

He saw her when she took another step behind Deidei. And he started to get up off the floor, then paused, silently asking if they were going.

Tarra shook her head.

He wrapped his arms around his knees again and grinned.

Deidei led her to the kitchen, to the warmth peeling off the stove. Pointing Tarra toward a stool at the table, she pulled the lid off the simmering pot, and pulled back to escape the steam with a smile.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I just didn’t know where Galen was,” Tarra said. “I’ll be fine in a minute.”

“In a minute?” Deidei asked. She looked at Tarra doubtfully and picked up a wooden spoon without looking.

Tarra bit her tongue. “In a while,” she amended. “I’ll be fine in a while.”

Deidei nodded then. It was not approval, not even really agreement, just acknowledgment that Tarra had said something honest.

“I don’t think that empty house is doing you much good,” Deidei said gently.

Tarra looked down at her hands. “It’s not really empty,” she murmured. “It’s got me and Galen. Jek and Merina and Lendon stay when their ships are in port. It’s fuller than yours.”

Deidei lived alone, but there was no nod now. She just looked at Tarra steadily, kindly.

“I’ll be fine,” Tarra said again. She hoped that it would erase what she’d said before, take her back a few moments.

Deidei finished the stirring pot, the spoon tapping the sides, the echoes of the metal pot dulled by whatever was inside. Then she tapped the spoon on the rim, and it rang clearer, and she set the lid back over the sweet steam.

“Waiting for things to change,” Deidei murmured. She took the two steps across to the table and slipped into the stool across from Tarra.

Tarra met her eyes quickly. “They will change,” Tarra said.

Deidei eyebrow snapped together, doubt so far from her expression that Tarra felt a little silly for having said it out loud.

“Of course they will,” Deidei said. “Everything changes. It’s one of fate’s forces, and there’s not a thing we can do to stop it.” Deidei paused. Then she almost whispered. “You know that.”

Straightening, Tarra locked her hands together under her coat. She didn’t look up, wasn’t sure if she’d be able to blink without crying. So she stared at her coat.

“You’re thirteen,” Deidei said. “And you know what you’re not supposed to learn for decades – that change builds and tears down – so let me help you. Let me tell you something else that you were supposed to find later.”

Carefully, Tarra blinked. Then she took a breath. Then she looked up.

“Change is like gravity. Like the tides,” Deidei said. “You can’t argue with forces like those. Not really. We need them to carry on like they do to keep our feet on the ground, and keep the oceans from going sour, and carry our ships out of the harbors. But it doesn’t mean we don’t also need to defy them.”

Tarra watched the smile creep over Deidei’s face. The older woman leaned forward to hold her words between the two of them, happy with her secret.

“We stand up, and keep our heads in the air,” Deidei told her. “We built above the tide. We drop anchor and order the tide to only drag us so far.”

Tarra listened, repeated the words to herself. And she didn’t say anything, unsure what sense that was supposed to make.

“You can wait for change,” Deidei told her. “And you’re right that it will come. And it will build for you sometimes. You take any gift it hands you, lovely. But you’d better defy it some. Lift your head. Tell it that it can only drag you so far.”

Tarra took a breath. Sharper than she had intended to, but it pushed her chest open a littler father than usual, spread her shoulders, forced her head up.

And Deidei nodded.

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