Page 1

Chapter 1

The saltshaker lay broken on the kitchen floor, silver and glass mixing with the dusty white scatter of salt on the tile. A chorus of hollow laughter crackled from a black and white television set on the countertop. The rest of the kitchen was bare, holding only a rickety wood table and three rickety wood chairs. In the center of the table was a large wooden bowl filled with steaming potatoes. George, twelve years old and small for his age, stood above the broken saltshaker. He had dark, shaggy bangs and coal black eyes. His mother towered over him in a plain brown dress. “Damn it, George! It’s hard enough to make salt to sell, and now we have to make it for our dinners, too?!” She was tall and gaunt, and in all his years George had only associated her with her legs – the smell of her stockings and the sound of them – a faint zip as the nylon whisked over itself when her calves brushed together. She always wore the same kind of dress: heavy and plain, tan or brown. She stood so high over him that all he ever saw of her were her stockinged calves and the nondescript hem of that monstrous dress. George himself was diminutive, perpetually dressed in a threadbare white buttondown shirt and a faded green sweater. He gripped the back of his chair. “Well, do you have anything to say for yourself, George?” “It was an accident.” “I’ll be damned if it was an accident. You’re always trying to make life harder on me and your sister. Always.” Her breath was thick and sour. He could smell it from five feet away. Blood rushed to his face. He wanted to kick the remains of the saltshaker across the floor. He wanted to scream and run out through the front door and down the street and into the night with no plan but that he would never come

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


back. He had this fantasy often, and whenever he told Vera about it, and she would nod sympathetically and say nothing. Because they both knew that he wouldn’t do it. Quickly, hesitantly, he threw an eye to the massive china bowl on the counter, next to the television set. Mother followed his gaze. “Go get the bowl,” she said. “Can’t we just reuse the salt?” “No, we can’t. We’re on a very strict budget, you know that. We’ve only been eating potatoes for a week, for God’s sake. What we have in the cupboard for salt – what we had in the cupboard – will have to go to the market, now.” George felt another flash of anger sweep across his face. Mother stared at him, the black lines of her eyebrows raised expectantly. She wavered and managed a hand on the countertop, steadying herself. He knew there was an empty tumbler and a tall green glass bottle on the carpet next to the recliner in the den. She closed her eyes for a long second and when she opened them, they were focused completely on George. Outside the kitchen, he could hear the soft creak of his sister’s footsteps down the stairs. “What happened?” Vera asked, coming into the kitchen. No one answered. Vera was tall, much taller than George. Even at sixteen, she stood high over most of the boys in her class and the next class up. She stepped forward and George shrunk back toward her. Mother stared Vera down long and hard, and spoke to George without shifting her gaze. “George, get the china bowl.” “You know he can’t do it,” Vera said. “He can do it and he will do it. Of all people, Vera, I’d think you’d want him to do it more than anyone.” George waited for Vera to give some kind of rebuttal, but she didn’t. She bit her bottom lip and turned to him. The room was silent, punctuated only by the staccato report of the laugh track lashing out

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


from the television. Vera was his hero, he was her cause. But in the wake of Mother’s words, she seemed suddenly smaller, tired. There was something else too, maybe deeper. The brightness fled from her. Her skin looked pale and the flush of her words drained from her cheeks. Her jeans were frayed at her ankles and she wore no shoes or socks, even though the house was drafty and George was always cold. “Why do you keep picking up his share of the load?” Mother continued. “You know he hasn’t cried now for months, while you spent every night last week hunched over the bowl.” George looked away as a pang of guilt swept over him. Vera’d cried for almost the entire week, and had finally filled their quota yesterday. There were still faint red channels from her eyes down her cheeks, and as their mother continued to speak, what fight was left visible in Vera’s body vanished. “George,” Mother said, “go and get the China bowl. Take it down off of the counter and put it on the table in front of you.” “I cry for him because he’s my brother. Family.” “He’s not even your full brother!” “He’s still my brother.” “He doesn’t treat you like a brother, Vera. …Fine, I don’t care. Cry for him, if you want.” But Vera made no move. George stood and Vera watched him. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll try.” Slowly, he took down the heavy white bowl. It was etched blue just under the lip, a tiny motif of fish running along its edge. He walked back to the table and weakly pushed aside a plate and silverware. He set the bowl down and sat at his chair, and waited for something to happen. The fish were hand painted so as to appear to swim in a circle around the lip of the bowl. There were sometimes bursts of blue, indicating whether or not the fish had jumped out of water or plunged back into it. He could practically see the artist who finished the bowl, likely a boy his own age or younger, crouched over a

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


dusty bench in some small, poorly lit room on the other side of the world. Maybe the building was in such disrepair that through the wood siding, like horizontal prison bars, shafts of light penetrated the dark but did not illuminate it. And this little boy resisted with all his being the urge to amuse himself with some comical addition to the bowl, like a fishhook and a cartoon worm - goofy, terrified look on its face. “Maybe you need some assistance, George?” Mother asked. He snapped out of his daydream. Vera’s face was drawn tight, almost expectant. Clearly now, she was unable or unwilling to stand up for him. Mother’s face darkened triumphantly. He turned back, slowly, to the bowl. He tried to force the tears to come, but he couldn’t feel a thing. Each of the fish looked like it was in the process of hunting the fish in front of it. Were that the case, though, and the fish were eating each other in a line, it made no sense: there were big ones and little ones and fat ones and skinny ones, all randomly placed, with fish mouths open, chasing each other. They must have meant something more, George thought. Their randomness was too precise. Perhaps it was a code. He could see the child in the workshop, dusty bare feet and calloused hands, writing it out. Save me! I need your help! If the boy had enough time, could he make a code, sneak it into the bowl, beyond his captor’s eyes? Could George figure it out? First in line was the small one, with the giant sail boat tail. An island, perhaps? Second was a skinny one with teeth, sharp and gnashing. The captor. Third came the fat one with tiny fins – if he were real, he wouldn’t be able to swim at all. It must be a code. “George!” Mother pounded her foot on the floor, and the porcelain bowl wobbled against the table top. The reality of his own situation swung into his consciousness and his fantasy was pulverized. His face contorted in frustration. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t cry.”

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


“Then I will make you cry, George!” she said, grabbing him roughly by his arm and shaking him. “You’re worthless! What kind of a house have I kept if my children expect a free ride? Miserable, lazy, wasted life! We barely have enough money to pay for potatoes, and if I can’t get salt from your tears, what will we eat? Day dreams?” “You have enough money for brandy and cigarettes,” Vera said quietly. Mother glared at her. “You have no right to question how I spend my money. No right. Not when the two of you are responsible for so much of it being spent!” Her voice thundered through the kitchen. He could hear Vera behind him. Her breath quickened; angry, or maybe afraid. Still, George felt nothing. Mother stepped forward, away from the counter. Again she wavered, and this time she steadied herself on the salt machine itself. It was boxy, silver and tarnished. It stood monolithic next to the counter. She had ordered it from a catalogue years ago, when she’d actually worked a day job as a receptionist. George still remembered the day she’d come home. He and Vera knew something was about to happen. She had a strange, wide smile. She’d quit her job, she told them. Children cry all the time, and they’ll pay dollars an ounce for quality children’s tear salt. In the years that had passed since then, the sole income of the family had become the jars of salt that they’d sell at a weekly farmer’s market. It was set up in the middle of the intersection of the tiny downtown of Denton. Mother would demand that they smile and laugh while they were there. People who bought the salt wanted to believe that the tears were tears of happy children. Maybe so they would feel less guilty, Vera had told George once. And every weekend, they sat hour after hour under the hot sun on milk crates with phony smiles. George always hoped his anonymous father would show up and find him like that. He hoped that his father would be rich and famous, and that he would show up and recognize George and whisk him away. Maybe he’d take Vera with them, too. “George, stop ignoring me. Clearly, Vera isn’t going to help you any more.”

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


“Leave him alone,” Vera said. “No!” Mother said squarely. “How can you back him up? You’ve done the work for both of you for months now. Are you that stupid? He doesn’t appreciate you, and still you stand by him like a dog!” Vera’s face shifted, and the red streaks on her cheeks flushed as her eyes watered. Her shoulders hunched forward slightly, and quickly a stifled sob erupted from her. She looked at George, her eyes wide and pleading. “Please George, I can’t do it anymore.” “Be quiet, dog. He won’t help you. Not because he can’t, but because he won’t. He doesn’t feel like it.” Tears began to stream from his sister’s face. He could smell the salt. They fell roughly over her already tear tracked cheeks. As they fell, Mother quickly snatched the china bowl from the table and put it beneath Vera’s face. Mother’s face was a mixture of triumph and even possibly regret. She left the room, and George went to Vera and rested his hand on his shoulder. She shrugged him away, pushing him weakly with her forearm. He didn’t leave, but instead moved back to the corner and stood quietly near the kitchen door. He wanted to cry for her. He knew that he could cry for her, if he really tried. But for some reason, he needed her to cry for him. He loved her. He needed to know she loved him back and in this, secretly, he felt he was as much a monster as Mother. Vera’s bony shoulders rose and fell in great sobs. She wailed until the bowl was overflowing, and then she sputtered to a stop. “I’m sorry, Vera,” he said blankly. She didn’t look at him. Slowly she stood and went to the sink. He watched as she slid the mildewed dishcloth out from the cabinet handle. She dabbed at her eyes and winced in pain. Then she spoke, still without looking at him. Her voice was weak. “This will never happen again, George.”

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


“Why?” George asked. “Don’t you care? That I always stick up for you and you just sit there? You don’t ever appreciate it. I’m sick of it. I’m leaving.” “Leaving? Where would you go? There’s no one else.” “I don’t care. I’d rather die that go through this anymore.” Vera’s voice was determined, and the look in her eyes made George uncomfortable. He’d noticed it recently more and more. When they were younger, Vera would get that look only occasionally, and when she was about to take on more than she could handle – a fight with Mother or at school. Now she held the look for hours or even days. And sometimes, like now, it was directed at George. “I’m sorry I couldn’t cry.” “No you aren’t. You’re not sorry. I keep thinking that you’ll start helping out, and you never do. She’s right, about you. You don’t love me.” “I do love you, Vera! You’re all I care about. I’m sorry – I promise I’ll cry. I promise. Just don’t leave. Don’t leave me here.” “I’ve given you so many chances, George. I’m done.” “What are you going to do? Run away?” “I don’t know, but I do know that whatever it is I’m going to do, George, you won’t be doing it with me.” She paused as Mother’s footsteps thundered down toward the kitchen. Mother swept back into the kitchen and stopped. She eyed them both curiously, but then saw the nearly full china bowl on the table and exhaled with relief, forgetting the children. She poured the bowl into the salt-maker.

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


The salt-maker stood fairly high, almost as high as George was tall. It had a funnel on the top into which Mother poured the tears. Underneath the funnel was a gauge and next to that was a horizontal series of lights – red, orange, and yellow. She pulled a large, heavy lever on the side and the machine clunked and chunked to life. Along the back, tubes and heating coils hissed and steam shot out of it. After a few minutes, a grinding noise punctuated the hissing and the lights lit, descending, red, orange, yellow until finally a bell sounded and the salt-maker fell to a halt. At the bottom was a tiny spigot, and Mother held a glass mason jar underneath it and turned a knob above it. A fine stream of salt poured out. After it emptied, she inspected it closely. “You’re getting old, Vera,” she said with a frown. “Your salt has been a little yellow lately. This will only get us 3/4 the price of quality children’s tears.” She put the jar of salt in one of the high cupboards, where she kept her cigarettes and brandy, and walked past George and Vera. “You should be ashamed of yourself, George,” she said as she passed. She went into the den, and he could hear her sifting through her old records. Soon, the humming pulse of one of Mother’s old jazz records filled the air. There was the click of a cigarette lighter, and the distinct twinge of smoke came into the kitchen. George put his hand on Vera’s shoulder. “Don’t touch me.” “I’m sorry, Vera. Next time, I promise, I’ll do it myself.” “It doesn’t matter anymore. Not to me. You’re on your own now.” “I’m sorry,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “You’re a liar. You think I can’t see that? Tonight I was going to give you one last chance to try, and after all the crying I did lately, I hoped that you’d finally do it. But you didn’t.”

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


Vera stood, brushed off her knees, and left the kitchen. The warped white door creaked as it swung in her passing. George could hear her go back up the steps to their bedroom. He turned off the weak overhead light, and then the television. The kitchen was cast into complete darkness. He fumbled his way toward the swinging door, and going through it, he saw that the only lights visible in the den were the tiny yellow bar of the stereo and the dull orange tip of Mother’s cigarette. That night, Vera said nothing else to him. On her side of the room, her bed was visible only in the pale fingers of street light that came in through the window. Outside, the skeletal silhouette of the old oak tree crowded the night, and George’s dreams were filled with hundreds of bony, disembodied hands, each skittering across a vast field of linoleum towards him while he called out in vain for Vera.

The next morning, a film of clouds covered the face of the sun, and the whole of the sky was filled in a gray glow. Vera had already left the room by the time George woke up, and he dressed quickly and slicked his hair down against his head with the flat of his hands. He threw his book bag up over his shoulders and trudged downstairs. He checked every room of the house. Vera was gone.

Jeff Smieding | And In Their Passing, A Darkness


And In Their Passing, A Darkness | Chapter 1  

This is the first chapter of Minniapolis, MN author Jeff Smieding's debut dark fantasy novel, And In Their Passing, A Darkness.

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