The call came the next day. Right around eight thirty, before we climbed into our trucks and went out for the morning.
“Just let the machine pick it up,” Mark told Mom O. from the doorway. “I’ll deal with it later.”
Because it sounded so very strange, we all paused when we heard the tinny voice of an automated operator.
“This is a text to land line message,” the artificial woman intoned.
We’d agree later how thankful we were for Jason’s sweet tooth. He was hovering over the candy dish when Mom O. collapsed after hearing the operator’s staccato words: “I’m going to kill you.”
“What the—” Mark lunged to grab the phone but the nasal dial tone was already filling the office.
Jason caught Mom O. as her knees buckled. Staggered under the weight of her until Charlie hurried to help him ease her onto her chair. He used his big hands to cradle Mom's head so it wouldn’t loll forward. Adam fetched a damp paper towel and pressed it to Mom's grave-colored forehead.
Mark stared at the handset in his palm. “Dang it! Blocked call.”
Jason snapped his fingers to get Mark’s attention. “Does Mom have some little pill to take? Like on TV? Should you call 911?”
“What do I know?” Mark said as he punched numbers into his cell. “Let me ask my sister.” He swept us with his glare, as if Mom O.’s condition was our fault. “See, this is why I didn’t want her to come in today.” Suddenly, with his eyes narrowed and the bones of his face set, he focused on Charlie. We’d never seen Mark that mad, that mean, ever.
“You need to get that . . . that . . . wife of yours under control, Charlie," he said as his pointer finger sliced at the air. "And just so you know, the police are involved. I swear, if anything . . .” His voice trailed off as he observed Charlie’s face. Noticed how his soft, brown eyes possessed no anger. Only embarrassment and a deep sadness.
The next Monday, on Mom O.’s first day back to work, Charlie quit.
“The fracking outfit finally made me an offer,” he told us at the end of the day. “Only thing is, the job’s not local. The boss man had hoped to set up shop here, but the folks protesting in front of the courthouse every Wednesday freaked him out. So for now, I’ll be working in
for three weeks, then home for one.”
On his side of the desk, Mark grimaced. “Charlie, I hope this isn’t because—”
Charlie shook his head. “No worries, Mark,” he said. “This has been in the works for awhile now.”
Mark smiled but it was a sad smile. “We’ll sure miss you, man.” He glanced at the rest of us. “No offense to these guys, but you’re about the best worker Mom O. and I ever had.”
We huffed in unison but no one paid us any mind.
Charlie rubbed his hands on his jeans. “Thanks for that, Mark,” he said. “The cool thing is, I won’t have to pay for hotel and meals every day. My brother and his wife live out there. Said I could stay with them.”
He turned to face Mom O. when he heard her sniffling. “And Mom . . . Gosh, I hate to go. Really I do. With the busy season coming and all. But the money’s too good to pass up. We should be able to dig ourselves out of the red within a year or two. Only thing is . . . I’m going to miss Jeremiah and Hannah something awful.”
Our eyes collided as we acknowledged the name he didn’t say.
“Oh,” Charlie said, “and Vandalia of course.”
Our eyebrows rose and fell together before we glanced away.
Mark stood. Walked over to Charlie and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I can check on them from time to time, if you want.”
Charlie gazed up at him. Drew a long, shaggy breath. “That’d be great, Mark. Actually, I’d like to ask a favor. You can say no if you want. Can you deposit my last paycheck for me? I'll get you a bank slip.”
Mark’s eyes widened but then he relaxed them. Nodded. “Sure, man. I can do that. And you have vacation pay coming too since you all didn't go anywhere this year or last. I can deposit that check the week after.”
Charlie nodded then turned to us. Extended his hand. “Nice knowing you guys and working with you, for what? Five years now?”
Adam drew Charlie into a hug. Slapped him on the back. “At least five,” he said. “Good luck, buddy.
Colorado? Really? Bet it’s beautiful out
Charlie moved toward Mom O.’s desk. Grabbed her wrists and gently heaved her to standing. Encircled her in his burly arms and carefully hoisted her an inch off the ground.
Mom O. giggled. “Easy does it, Charlie.” When he let her feet touch ground she cupped his scruffy cheek. “I hear their mountains are bigger than ours,” she said. “I don't believe it. Send me a post card, won’t you?”
“Sure thing, Mom,” Charlie said after he used his handkerchief to dab at her tears.
She sniffed again and flipped her hands at him. “Go on now. And you take care, Charlie. Make good choices, you hear? That’s what I always tell Mark. Don’t I, Mark?”
Mark nodded and smiled his sad smile again. “She does indeed. All the time.”
(You're almost to the end of this short story. If you wanna start at the beginning, click here: "Vandalia and Charlie.")