This story is by Des Dixon and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Brown’s house stood on the edge of town just beyond the end of paved roads and the beginning of gravel roads.
The house had a slight lean and the front porch was missing a few boards. Peeling paint on the exterior walls fluttered in the breeze waving for someone to come and bring along a wrecking crew.
Inside, broken chairs surrounded a pot-bellied stove not used since the cool weather. Cigarette butts were crushed into the lid.
It was the home of Betsy and Festus Brown and their ten-year- old son, Barney.
Today was a bad day for the Brown family, a day they didn’t look forward to or face.
It was breakfast but only Barney sat at the table.
“What’s cancer Ma?” Barney asked. He was a “Huck Finn” kind of kid and wore his baseball cap with straw-like hair sticking out on all sides.
“It’s somethin’ that makes you sick Barney,” his Ma, Betsy, quietly replied.
“You got it bad Barney, ya don’t got no more than six months to live,” his Pa chimed in.
“Shut up Festus you don’t know nothin’.”
“I ain’t scared Pa ‘cause I got no cancer” Barney said, then, “I’m hungry Ma, what’s for breakfast?”
“Here you go son,” filling his bowl with Captain Crunch and dousing it with Pepsi, then filling her own glass.
“If you want seconds just holler ‘cause you gotta eat.”
“We sure get nice meals at school,” Barney said innocently.
“Hey,Festus! Want some Pepsi?” she asked.
“Sure, put some Jack Daniels in it,” he said.
“You ain’t gettin’ no Jack Daniels today, we gotta bring Barney to the doctors.” she said firmly.
Barney was suspected of having lung cancer when he had a routine check-up at school.
The nurse in the County medical clinic forwarded his X-rays to the local hospital and made an appointment for him.
It was time to leave for the hospital and Betsy made sure her family would be dressed in their Sunday best.
“Y’all slick your hair down and get dressed like you were somebody,” Betsy told her family.
When they finished primping and fussing she ushered them out the door. Betsy and Barney sat on the couch Festus had dragged out on the lawn from the living room.
“Y’all can sit out nice and pretty when it’s too hot inside,” Festus told them.
Betsy shooed their pit-bull off the couch just as Minnie, the cat, appeared on the scene. Minnie headed toward Betsy purring and looking proud as she displayed a dead rat she killed in the back shed.
“Get that thing to hell out of here Minnie,” Betsy said.
Festus pulled up in their old Chevy beater as Betsy took Barney’s hand.
“C’mon along Barney, we gotta get this thing over and done with,” she said nervously.
As they drove to the hospital Betsy suddenly felt she was losing control of her emotions. She had to do something to hold back the tears and at the same time divert Barney’s attention.
“Let’s play that game “I Spy” Barney, you go first.”
“No, I wanna go first,” Festus said.
“Okay, you go first Pa” Barney said.
“I spy with my little eye a truck,” Festus said.
“No Festus, that ain’t no way to play it, show him Barney.”
“I spy with my little eye something that starts with ‘T’,” Barney said.
“A truck, says Festus, see I told you so.”
“Pa wins again Barney,” Betsy says winking at Barney.
They finally arrive at the hospital and go into the waiting room just as a drunk from a local bar staggers in with a bleeding nose. He is followed by his drunken friend who hangs on to his belt as he offers his apologises. The friend lets go of his friends belt and wanders away. He stops in front of Festus and vomits on the floor. A hospital orderly, dressed in blue, rushes over with a mop and pail to clean it up. Festus watches intently admiring the orderly’s blue uniform and wishing he had a good job like the orderly.
“You don’t never vomit like that do you Pa?” Barney asks worriedly.
“No Barney your Pa only swills a few drinks, he don’t ever, never, swill too much,” Betsy says proudly.
The waiting room quietens down and Betsy, after waiting for an hour, and seeing everyone go ahead of her family, asks the nurse at the counter why their name wasn’t called.
“Oh, you have to take a number lady,” the nurse replied, pointing to the roll of numbers.
Betsy takes a number and they wait patiently for another hour.
Just as they think the ordeal will never end a nurse appears and ushers them down the hall.
“Just hold your nose and don’t breathe,” Festus advises.
As they walk down the hall they see a nurse helping an old man dressed in an open, backless, hospital gown complaining to the nurse that he is cold.
“I don’t feel any cold,” the nurse tells him, “you must be sick.”
Barney’s first experience in a hospital is not going well.
He places his hands over his eyes as he passes the old man hoping to erase what he just saw.
They arrive at the consultation room and a kindly nurse ushers them into a room where they meet Barney’s doctor.
“This is what concerns me, look at that shadow,” the doctor says coldly, pointing to the X-ray of Barney’s chest.
“That’s a big shadow,” Festus observed.
“That’s the cancer Festus,” Betsy said patiently.
“I’ll consult with my colleagues,” he droned on, “we’ll see what is the best treatment for our young patient Barney.”
They drove home in silence, Betsy trying to hold back the tears, as Festus stares at the road seemingly untouched by it all. Barney looks down pretending to tie his shoe-laces.
As they approached the playground Barney cheers up.
“Let me out here Pa, I’m gonna play baseball,” he said.
Festus lets Barney out of the car and they drive on home.
“Pour me a double” Festus said when they arrived.
“You ain’t gettin’ hammered today,” Betsy said, hiding the bottle.
“Want a cigarette?” she asked, showing a little mercy.
“Ya, light me up,” he laughed, trying to be cheerful.
When Betsy held the match to light his cigarette she saw the look in her husband’s eyes. She gave him a hug and went to get the Jack Daniels. They sat down, had a few drinks, held onto each other, and cried.
Just when they reached the bottom of despair the ‘phone rang. Betsy, drying her tears, and blowing her nose, answered it.
“Hello!” “Yes this is Betsy Brown,” then, “yes doctor, you what?”
“What did the doctor say Betsy?” Festus asked.
“Barney ain’t got no cancer at all Festus, they mixed up the X-rays.”
“Yahoo!” “Drag out another Jack Daniels Betsy!” Festus yelled, then added, “We’re gonna have a celebration!”
Just then Barney burst in the door after his baseball game.
“I got a home run Pa!” he said excitedly, looking like a different kid.
“I’m right proud of you son!” and “We got good news for you to son!” Festus said, slapping his son on the back.
“You mean I don’t have no cancer?” Barney asked.
“That’s it son, and we’re gonna have a celebration!”
Betsy ordered an extra large pepperoni pizza with double cheese and two large bottles of Pepsi.
“Y’all sit down and say a good long prayer of thanks to the Lord up there in the sky,” she said with tears of joy streaming down her face.
The family sat around the table and it was just like old times with Festus cutting the pizza, giving the first slice to Barney, and Betsy pouring the Pepsi.