April 15, 2012

Eighteen Inches


Eighteen Inches
by Mallory Wycoff

Colorado Springs, 1920

It was dark and still except for her sisters’ deep, even breathing. Xenia raised herself up, leaning on her elbow, and glanced at them. They seemed to be fast asleep. Still, she had to be sure….

“Xantha! Xantha!” Her thirteen-year-old sister shifted, moaned a little, then was quiet. Asleep.

“Xelia? Are you awake?” Nothing. She, too, was asleep.

Xenia slowly climbed over Xantha and out of bed, careful not to bump either sister. As the middle sister, she naturally slept between them. She grabbed her shoes and stockings and slipped from the roomy attic, going quietly down the stairs. Once in the kitchen, she pulled on her stockings and shoes, careful to keep the cardboard inserts in place. Mama had carefully cut the cardboard to fit perfectly inside Xenia’s shoes; the soles had been worn through. Papa used to fix their soles; they’d never had to have cardboard before. And they certainly couldn’t afford new shoes. The cardboard would just have to do.

Xenia shivered a little and moved quickly through the dining room to the living room. As she passed Mama’s closed bedroom door, she paused, listening to be sure Mama wasn’t up still. She could imagine the room, so neat and tidy, with the big bed and the dresser Papa had made. She’d been born in that front bedroom, she and both her sisters and their younger brother, too. Lem was probably asleep next to Mama, his little body snuggling close. He used to sleep upstairs with them, but Mama didn’t like sleeping in that big bed all by herself.

Xenia decided that Mama must be sleeping; it was late, after all. She grabbed her worn coat and slipped into it, then eased the front door open, cringing when it creaked a little. She shut it just as quietly and began running as soon as she stepped off the front stoop.

She ran down East Las Vegas Street, the frigid air seeping down into her lungs. It was almost October, so it wasn’t freezing yet, but just cold enough that Xenia almost wished she were back in bed. Almost. She passed South Nevada Avenue, then rounded the corner onto Tejon Street. It was only a few minutes before she stopped, panting, in front of the OK Bicycle Shop. She waited to catch her breath, then climbed up the two steps and sat on the front stoop.

The moon was full tonight; it was huge and yellow, and shone so brightly that Xenia hadn’t been at all afraid when she ran. Now, as she rested her back against the front door to the bicycle shop, she looked at the moonlight reflecting off the other shops down the street, and suddenly realized how alone she was. A dog barked in the distance and the sound left her feeling eerie and afraid.

Xenia tightly wrapped her arms around her middle, holding back the tears. She shouldn’t have come. She would be in such trouble if Mama or the girls found out she were here, at this hour, in the cold. But she’d needed to come. If she closed her eyes and tried real hard, she could almost hear his voice, could see that bushy mustache and his black bowler hat. She could imagine him here, repairing bicycles, sometimes for fifteen hours a day.

“I miss you, Papa,” she whispered. A few tears fell, feeling hot against her cold cheeks. She wiped them away and sniffled a little, then sat up straighter. “Papa,” she said, louder this time. “Papa, why did you leave us? Why? We need you, Papa. So much.” More tears fell and she huddled closer to the door, starting to feel chilled now. “Oh, Papa.”

This was the fourth time she’d come here since he’d died. The first time had been right after the burial, in August. It had been warm still, and she’d stayed almost all night. She had decided not to come back—ever—after that first night, but only a week later, she’d found herself here again. It was important to come. It was the only place she could say his name out loud. It was the only place she could cry.

Xenia cried a little, but soon she was shivering too hard. If she got sick, Mama would scold her for sure. She rose stiffly, and tried to peer in the front window, but she couldn’t see anything. What would happen to Papa’s bicycle shop? Mama had already said money was tight, and they’d be making lots of changes. Would they have to sell the shop? She placed both hands on the front window, her nose gently touching the glass, but still she could see nothing. “Goodbye,” she whispered, then turned to run home. Next time will be colder, she reminded herself. It won’t matter. I’ll still come.

* * *

“Xenia!” Xantha cried hoarsely, shaking her sister’s shoulder. “Wake up! Something awful is happening!”

Xenia sat up, rubbing her eyes. It was barely light out. “What is it? What’s happening?”

“Sh!” Xantha hushed her. “Don’t wake Xelia. She’s been through enough; I don’t want her to know about this yet. Come over here, away from the bed.” She pulled Xenia with her until they crouched near the window that overlooked the street.

“What’s wrong, Xantha? Tell me already!” Xenia said, just above a whisper.

“Quieter!” Xantha snapped. “Okay, listen. I heard Mama talking to the Methodist minister a few minutes ago. She said she’s going to…she said she might have to send….” Xantha stopped, covering her eyes and shaking her head. “Oh, it’s awful!”

“Xantha! You have to tell me!” Xenia said softly, trying to pull Xantha’s hands away from her face. “Tell me! Send who?”

“Lemuel!” Xantha moaned. “She thinks she has to send Lem away!”

“Lemuel! But he’s so little!” Xenia protested. “Where is she going to send him?”

“To a boys’ home,” Xantha whispered, her eyes wide and fearful.

“A boys’ home? Why? Those are for boys who don’t have mothers! Lemuel has a mother!”

“I don’t know,” Xantha wailed, forgetting all about keeping quiet for Xelia. She quickly wiped away the tears that fell, looking ashamed and staring at the floor. “Oh, this is so awful! I wish he had never—.” She stopped, finally meeting Xenia’s gaze.

“Don’t say it,” Xenia said stoically. She knew Xantha wasn’t speaking about Lemuel; she was thinking of Papa. “Don’t talk about him that way.”

Xantha looked away.

“I’m going to ask her,” Xenia said, rising quickly. She started down the attic stairs.

“Xenia, no! You can’t!” Xantha cried, but it was too late. Xenia was already downstairs and heading toward the front bedroom.

Mama was sitting in her rocking chair, her back to the door, looking at a piece of paper. She was murmuring something that Xenia couldn’t make out. Lemuel was fast asleep in Mama’s bed.


Mama startled, then quickly folded the paper and tucked it into her sleeve. Her hands passed over her face, then brushed the skirt of her dress, before she turned. “Yes, Xenia? What is it, dear?” Her eyes were red-rimmed and moist.

“Mama, are you really going to send Lemuel to a boys’ home?”

Mama’s eyes darkened and she kept clearing her throat, but her gaze never left Xenia’s.

“I don’t want to, Xenia,” she finally said, her voice coming out hoarse and faint.

“Then don’t,” Xenia pleaded. “Don’t do it, Mama.”

“My sweet child,” Mama said softly. “I can’t afford to take care of all of my children. Lem will be taken care of at the boys’ home. And he’ll be back before you know it. It’s only temporary.”

Xenia shook her head. “Don’t do it, Mama,” she said again.

But Mama sank to the floor, burying her face in her arms and sobbing so that Xenia thought her heart would break. “Oh, Mama….”

* * *

The first time they saw Lemuel after he was sent to the boys’ home was at church; Mama had decided they must all go to church now, and they’d bundled up and gone that first Sunday morning. All the little boys from the home sat in the first two pews on the left and Xenia saw Lem right away, squeezed between two boys just his size. The service had already started, so they had to stay in their seats, but Xenia’s gaze never left the back of her brother’s soft blond head.

As soon as the minister had said the final Amen, the girls and Mama had hurried to Lem’s side, ruffling his hair and poking him, but not showing too much. Mama had kissed his cheek and called him a good little boy, but Mr. Rustin from the boys’ home had ushered all the boys out before too long.

That had been weeks ago. Now, each week, the girls and Mama said hello to Lem and patted his head, then watched him leave with the other boys. And each time, Mama would say, “Just a little while longer, that’s all.” But she looked sad and Xenia wondered how much longer.

Lem had come home for Thanksgiving, but he’d gone back the next day and the house had felt too quiet. It always felt that way now; Mama was always gone trying to earn money, and even Xantha sewed on buttons and hemmed shirts for some of the neighbors, just so they could get some extra money. They all helped with the chores and making meals, small as they were.

This week at church there was a potluck. Mama had brought carrots and cabbage, and the girls had been excited to share a meal with Lem, but Mr. Rustin had led the boys out the doors right after church, explaining that they had food ready already at the home. Xenia thought her heart just might burst, but she’d taken one look at Mama’s stoic face and had straightened her shoulders in an attempt to brush off her disappointment.

The potluck—even without Lem—had been enjoyable; the girls hadn’t eaten so much food since Papa had died. No one mentioned that, of course, but they had smiled at each other with their mouths full of good-tasting food. And afterwards, Mama had wandered around talking to people, smiling faintly. It was the first time Xenia had seen her smile in months, even if it was a very sad smile.

Almost before Xenia was ready to stop eating, Mama told her to find her hat; it was time to leave. Xenia sighed and obeyed, tilting her hat until she felt that it was straight. Two matronly women from the church were standing nearby, also adjusting their hats, and Xenia couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

“Such a tragic story,” Mrs. True murmured, pulling on her gloves. She glanced around and then leaned closer to Mrs. Murphy. “I heard he left a note.”

Xenia pretended to be busy adjusting her hat, but slowly inched closer to the two women. That sounded mysterious; a note! She wondered who they were talking about.

“A note! You don’t say!” Mrs. Murphy burbled. “How horrid! I can’t imagine being in Estella’s position! How awfully horrid!”

Xenia’s hand stilled; Estella was her mother’s name. Were they talking about her family?

“Oh, my dear Mrs. Murphy, it is. Quite horrid. I wonder what it said. It was Estella and the littlest girl—Xelia, I believe—who found him.”

Xenia backed away from the women, her eyes wide and her mouth open in horror. Were they talking about her father? No one talked about him! Mama didn’t, the girls didn’t, Grandmother didn’t. Xenia hadn’t heard his name, or even Papa, in months. No one talked about his death, no one talked about his life. It was as if they were all pretending he had never existed.

But not these women. They were talking about Papa, and saying something about a tragedy and a note. Xenia wanted to scream at them, slap them, something! But Mama walked by just then and grabbed her elbow, ushering her outside. Xantha and Xelia followed as Mama walked briskly home, not saying a single word. Xenia’s heart felt like it was being squeezed; it felt like it couldn’t breathe. Did hearts breathe? If they did, hers couldn’t. It felt like it was dying.

* * *


* * *

“Xelia?” she said softly. Xantha was talking to Mama downstairs while her sisters got ready for bed.

“Hm?” her ten-year-old sister was in the middle of pulling her cotton nightgown over her head. “Did you say something?”

“What…. What did you see?”

Xelia grabbed her brush and slowly combed her hair. “See? When?”

“That day…. The day that Pa—that he…died.” There. She’d said it. He died.

Xelia stopped brushing. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Did you see him? In the shed? Mama wouldn’t let me go in.”

“Yes. I saw him.” She wouldn’t look at Xenia.

“Well…. What did he look like? How did he die?”

“I don’t want to talk about this.” She dropped the brush and ran downstairs.

Xenia sighed and walked to the window. The moon was only a tiny sliver tonight; the street looked dark and lonely. Just like she felt.

“Xenia?” It was Mama. She was standing just behind Xenia, holding something in her hands. “Come sit with me.”

Xenia followed Mama to the bed and sat down. She felt Mama’s arm go around her shoulders and she felt safe and warm.

“Honey, did you hear what those women at church were saying?”

Xenia nodded, afraid Mama would be angry.

“What did you hear?” She didn’t sound angry. Just sad. And tired.

“They said he left a note.” She looked at Mama’s hands; they were holding a folded paper.

“He did. I have it here. But it doesn’t say why, Xenia. He didn’t say why.”

She opened the paper and let Xenia take it. It was Papa’s handwriting, all right, written in pencil. It said, You wil find me in the shed, ded. That was all.

“Why, Mama?” she asked, her voice sounding crusty and tired. It felt like her throat had a huge lump in it, but she spoke around it. “Why did he do it?”

Mama couldn’t answer. She kept swallowing; Xenia could feel her trembling. “I don’t know, my sweet girl. Maybe he was too tired. He had a lot of work to do. He wanted his family to have what they needed. Life was hard for him.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes. “Mama?” Xenia asked, her eyes bright and inquiring. “Did Papa love me?”

“Of course he did,” Mama answered quickly. She squeezed her daughter tightly, then laid her head on top of Xenia’s.

Xenia was quiet for a few moments, then, “My heart tells me that Papa loved me, but my head is telling me that he would have stayed if he loved me. Which one is right?”

She was startled by the drops of Mama’s tears that landed on Xenia’s nose. “Oh, my sweet girl. Listen to your heart.” She tilted Xenia’s head until their gazes met. Mama’s eyes were wet and Xenia could see that she was just as hurt and confused as Xenia was. “Sometimes things happen that we don’t understand. They make our hearts hurt and our minds tell us lies, to explain the hurt. But know that the longest eighteen inches in the world is the eighteen inches between your heart and your head. Someday you’ll be able to bridge that space. But for now, you just remember that your Papa loved you very much.”

Xenia smiled, then handed the note back to Mama. “Thank you, Mama.”

Mama kissed her and tucked her into bed; Xantha and Xelia came scurrying in a moment later. “Goodnight, my sweet girls,” Mama said softly.

“Goodnight!” they called in unison. Xenia rolled to her side and let the tears fall, hoping that Xelia wouldn’t notice.

* * *

Two Years Later

Xenia scrubbed the dishes, delighting in the fact that there were five, and not four. Lem was home.

He had been back for almost a week now, and the girls and Mama were still getting used to having him in the house. They loved having him, of course, but they were unaccustomed to hearing his voice, or seeing his coat hang next to theirs, or smelling his boyish scent.

And it wasn’t the same as it used to be, before he left. He was quiet, now, and solemn. The laughing, mischievous boy was gone; Lem had become a somber ten-year-old.

Mama smiled often around him, tenderly touching his face, tousling his hair, calling him her sweet boy. Her eyes were usually too bright and Xenia could tell that she was trying extra hard to make him feel welcomed and loved. Maybe too hard.

It hurt Xenia’s heart to see him this way. She wondered what he was feeling—they all did—but no one asked him. They were silent in that respect, pretending that everything was fine. Just like when Papa died.

Xenia accidentally sloshed some water onto her dress; Mama would scold her silly if she caught her wasting water like that. She focused on the task at hand; her daydreaming was too distracting.

Lem wandered into the kitchen as she was drying the last plate.

“Hi, Lem.”

“Hi.” He placed a scrap of paper on the table and began sketching.

“What are you drawing?” Xenia abandoned the stack of dishes that waited to be put in the cupboard.

“Nothin’. Just drawin’.” His voice was quiet.

She leaned over his shoulder and peered at the faint marks on the paper. It looked like a woman with a stern face; she was holding three children close to her bosom. Xenia’s heart clenched. “Is that Mama? And the girls and I?”

Lem crumpled up the paper and stuffed it in his pocket, then shoved away from the table.

“Lem, please.” Xenia’s voice was soft enough that he stopped. “Talk to me. If you can’t talk to Mama, talk to me. I want to know how you feel.”

He turned a little and she could see the wet in his eyes. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes. I really do.” She sat down, waiting. “Tell me.”

He sat too. “I feel like Mama doesn’t love me.”

“Oh, Lem.” She reached out to touch him, but he shifted away. “Mama loves you. We all do.”

He shook his head. “You don’t. Else why did she send me away? Why did you and the girls let her?”

“We had too, Lem,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “We didn’t want to. But there was no other way. The girls and I have worked hard. We’ve done chores and little jobs and we haven’t eaten very much. Have you noticed how skinny Xelia is? We had to sacrifice. We didn’t want that for you. Mama wanted you to be able to eat a good meal. She didn’t want—.” Xenia couldn’t finish. She waited a moment, then cleared her throat. “It was because she loved you that she sent you away.”

Lem wouldn’t look at her, but she could feel him softening.

“Lem, Mama once told me that the eighteen inches between your head and your heart are the longest eighteen inches in the world. She said that sometimes your heart and head have trouble agreeing on what’s true. I know what she means, Lem. And I think you do, too. You have to understand that we love you, even when your head is telling you that we don’t. Do you understand, Lem?”

Lem blinked, sending a few tears sliding down his face. He shrugged. “I don’t know, Xene. It’s hard.”

“It is hard. But someday you will understand. You just have to trust your heart for now.”

He nodded slightly and this time, when she reached to touch him, he didn’t move away.

“We really do love you, Lemuel. Someday you’ll know for sure.” She kissed his cheek, then went upstairs, leaving him in the kitchen to think.

She crawled into bed, between her sisters, and snuggled under the blanket.

Soon the room was dark and still except for her sisters’ deep, even breathing. Xenia could tell they were asleep, but tonight it didn’t matter. She was going to stay in bed all night. Her heart was at peace.

* * *

Mallory Wycoff graduated from Biola University in 2009 with a B.A. in History, but her true passion is literature! She pays the bills by working as a nanny (a job she truly enjoys) and writes whenever she can in her spare time. She loves observing the world around her and tries to capture it in words–-a true challenge.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I get most of the ideas for my historical fiction stories from true life stories! In my family, we have passed down many stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents, and I enjoy taking solid facts and forming them into a fictional story.