After The Storm

June 10th, 2010

Julia Barker had met Jacob Smith when he came to work as a computer-systems analyst for the Highway Commission in Topeka, where she had worked for about three years as a secretary. She had grown up in Wichita, but had worked for the state of Kansas summers while in college, and had been offered this job when she graduated from WSU. It meant moving away from home, and her family and friends, and meeting all new people, but it was a good job, with good benefits, and she was soon comfortable with the work. She had become one of those to whom others came for advice, in fact. People just liked to stop by and talk to her for a few minutes-about anything-when they were getting a cup of coffee.

Julia had been dating Jacob, off and on, for about three months. Though he had gradually become more aggressive, she resisted, and he sometimes apologized as he was leaving, with a smile, as if to say, “Nothing ventured . . .” But, while she might still have him over for dinner, if others were coming, she had quit going up to his apartment once she’d decided there was little likelihood of a long-term relationship. She had no desire for a short-term romantic affair, with anyone for whom she suspected that might be a way of life. Still, they got along well enough, often joking together at work. He particularly enjoyed trading slightly off-color jokes with a group of women, chuckling as he played them off against each other. He also dated other women, some who worked there. As Julia had occasion to talk to them, they too had found him a little hard to get along with. He had a temper at times, some said. She could believe it.

One day she saw him having lunch in the lunch room with a blonde woman she didn’t know, and was sure didn’t work there. With her deep tan and robust manner she looked more like a woman who worked outdoors-on a highway crew, perhaps, or on a farm, driving a tractor and milking cows-than a secretary. She and Jacob were obviously having an argument when Julia came in for lunch. So, in spite of her curiosity, she didn’t offer to join them. Moments later, the blonde woman got even angrier, looking Jacob directly in the eye, and speaking to him sharply as she stood up and then left, leaving most of her lunch uneaten-and Julia admiring her spirit.

Jacob hastened after her, trying to convince her to stay. But, without slowing down, the woman went out the door. Jacob came back frowning, but soon was casually finishing his lunch. Then he ate the part of the sandwich the blonde woman had left as well. When she saw Jacob later that afternoon Julia mentioned that she’d witnessed this dispute, and had then seen him eat the woman’s sandwich. He just laughed. “Well, I paid for it . . . and it was a good sandwich.”

Julia said, “I don’t believe I’ve seen her here before.”

“And probably won’t again. I’m afraid Gloria’s a woman out of my troubled past. I think I told you I grew up on a farm near here, close to the one she grew up on. She was a year behind me, grade school through high school, so I knew her well. But I left the farm after I graduated from high school. When I got this job, after several years back East, I was surprised to learn Gloria still lived here. So I called and asked her to meet me here for lunch-for old time’s sake.

She still has the temper I remember, as I suppose you saw. I don’t even know what started the argument. But it looks like our relationship is a thing of the past. I know I’m not going back to the farm. I told her if I ran into a good farm boy, I’d let her know, which is probably what touched her off. It’s hard to make a living on a farm around here now . . . enough to support a family. And it’s still hard work.” He laughed again.

A week or so later, on an April Friday, Jacob told Julia there was something he’d like to show her, out in the country near that farm where he’d grown up. This was just the right time of year for it, if she had some time the next day. She said she did, so he picked her up in the middle of the morning in his 1990 Toyota Camry-all blue inside and out, and neat as a pin-and they drove out north of town. “I bought this car brand new when I was in high school up here,” he said with a smile. “I was very proud of it then . . . and still think of it as my new car.”

He looked at the sky off to the west and added, “Speaking as a farm boy, I can tell you that there’s weather coming in-for sure-but we should be able to get to what I want to show you and back to the car before the storm hits. Then let it rain to its heart’s content. I like to travel in the rain-and so does this car. If the rain continues, maybe we can go to a movie.”

Julia also liked to ride in a car with the rain beating down and the windshield wipers working. She liked the rhythm and general mystique of being dry with the rain trying so hard to get her wet. Driving on a hot summer day, she could feel as sorry for those poor roasting tires as Jacob must, thinking how they must wish they were rolling along in the cool bath of a nice rain.

After seven or eight miles on the paved highway, Jacob pulled off onto a gravel road, drove over a little rise, then soon into a driveway overgrown with weeds alongside an obviously abandoned farmhouse. It was a picturesque old building, perhaps not quite beyond repair, but, not uncommon with Kansas farms she’d noticed, the outbuildings looking better than the house.

“Is this where you grew up?” Julia asked.

“No, we lived on down the highway-in a house people still live in. I’ll show you on the way back. It actually looks best in the rain. From inside, too. Whenever it quit raining you had to go out and mend fence or something. But the people now living there aren’t farming either. They work in Topeka. The husband’s a plumber, I think, his wife a teacher. But it gives them a nice place in the country to live, where their three kids can get out and run, have their pets-join 4-H, raise a calf. But their parents drop them at school in town, on the way to work.”

He looked at the house for a long moment. “This place would be less attractive to them . . . even if it were in good shape. It’s a smaller house, would crowd a family of five. And back off the highway on a gravel road. It might take more money to paint than it’s worth. Or maybe not, for a couple-maybe a couple of guys-who liked the location, and had some use for a good barn and tool shed, for working on their cars, say. Then it might be a good ‘fixer upper.’ You should be able to get the buildings and a few acres, like from here to those trees, pretty cheap. I don’t know why the front door is hanging open. I suppose the lock is shot, and local kids run in and out. They may have broken, or shot out, some of the windows on purpose. We can look at the inside, if you want, since there’s nobody here.” He looked at the sky again. It was getting darker in the west. “But let’s save that ’til we get back. It might look better in the rain, too.”

“So this is not what you brought me to see?”

“No . . . but it’s near here. I’ll show you. Just back a little ways through those woods. I hope we get to it while we still have plenty of sunshine.”
Julia asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea? Who knows what might lurk out in the woods? I even thought I heard something scurrying around in the house. You think a raccoon?”

Jacob gave her a mock serious look and pulled a .38 revolver out of his pocket. “Maybe, with the door wide open. But I brought this along for your protection, just in case. I told you what a good shot I am, didn’t I? When I was a boy I owned a .22/.410 rifle/shotgun over/under that I carried everywhere. Shot a lot of doves and rabbits with that-but never a bear-out here in these woods.” He laughed. “We won’t need this, for sure. I just get in the habit of carrying a gun when I’m out and about.” He put the gun back in his pocket. “But you forget I grew up here. That’s how I know what’s here. See . . . there’s the path-though it’s getting as overgrown as the driveway. This is about the heaviest the woods get for miles around here . . . because of this valley, and the creek . . . though it cuts into the good farm land.”

Jacob took Julia’s hand and led her past the barn behind the old farmhouse into the woods. They walked for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, until the path opened out close to a little stream, where there was a nice patch of new green grass and a scattering of spring flowers.

Julia asked, “Is this it? This stream and flowers?” Jacob was smiling. “It’s beautiful. What a nice place for a picnic. We should have brought a picnic lunch.”

“Well, this is important. This sunny place is part of it,” Jacob said. “I thought it might put you in the right mood.” Julia was already apprehensive about the tone of his voice, and when, as she stooped to pick a flower, Jacob suddenly laid both hands on her from behind, she jumped.

Then, as she turned to face him, he grabbed her and held her tightly, as he tried to kiss her. He told her how attracted he’d been to her from the first, and that this place, this time of year, was where he himself had first experienced love-and where it had always been the best. He hoped it would be for her.

Julia began to struggle, using all of her strength. But his intentions were clearly serious. They were out in the woods where nobody could even hear her yell-though she did. He covered her mouth with his and forced her back against the large oak tree that dominated this little spot. Still holding her with one hand, he soon had her skirt up with the other. Reaching up in desperation, she grabbed a loose branch hanging down from the tree. She broke it off and brought it down on his head, as hard as she could. Then, as he instinctively released her to wrest the branch away, she let it go, pushing him down, and dodged behind the tree, then first one tree then another, moving away from the path into the woods-as he sat there dazed for a moment.

She finally found a thick group of bushes, and burrowed under them, keeping quite still as Jacob came within five feet of her, saying, “Julia, let me explain.”

She was afraid he might step on her, but held her breath until he’d walked on by-as the thunder began to roll. He hollered out, from a little distance now, that he was sorry. He’d wait for her back at the car. “No need to walk home in the rain.” He forced a laugh. “I’ll behave.”

She just stayed where she was, as he got further and further away, until she judged he’d had time to get back to the car. Then she began moving diagonally to the direction he’d been calling from, planning to keep some distance between them, and hoping to strike the paved road.

After another few minutes she heard a shot. Jacob had evidently fired his gun. Perhaps he was trying to signal her, assuming she’d be lost, and, when it began to rain, might be glad to accept a ride back to town. Shortly after that she heard a second shot, but had no desire to face an angry Jacob with a gun in his hand. Then she thought she’d heard the car start up. But she wasn’t sure. He must have decided to leave. To come back for her later? Who knows?

With no point of reference but trees, she wasn’t sure which direction the highway was, or even that she was continuing to go in the same direction. She got the feeling she was seeing some of the same trees more than once. But then she saw a patch of sunlight, between the tree trunks, in the direction in which she had been going. She began to follow that light, ducking down below branches to keep it in sight. It became an open area, bathed in sunlight, and she was almost running, on what had become another of these woodland paths, until she broke out of the trees into the clearing. There was no sign of the highway, but she saw a large open field, perhaps a pasture. She wasn’t sure, but it looked like rye grass, and looked wonderful. Once in the sunlight, Julia heaved a sigh of relief and dropped down at the edge of the field, her eyes dazzled by the sun after the darkness of the woods.

She still had no idea where she was, but no longer felt lost.

This sunny new world had hardly begun to come into focus, however, before Julia noticed the tall rye grass waving in the strong wind. She looked up to see those dark cumulus clouds, that had been piling up in the west, now tumbling over each other racing toward her. The whole field fell into shadow, as the clouds covered the sun. Everything was rapidly getting darker.

Then came a sharp flash of lightning, followed by a heavier rumble of thunder. The velocity of the wind increased, until the grass was bending almost to the ground. She felt the splash of a huge drop of rain, then another. Soon the rain was coming down in torrents, with alternating peals of thunder and flashes of lightning.

She retreated into the woods she’d just seen herself as escaping from, hoping for the protection of those larger trees in shutting out the threatening heavens, perhaps finding one to act as a natural umbrella until, after the storm, there was sunshine again. As she ran, seeking any shelter she could find, suddenly, there was the abandoned farmhouse. She must have been going in circles. The car was gone, so she had been abandoned. The porch leaked badly, but the front door was still ajar and, her clothes now soaked through, she stepped inside.

The first thing she saw was Jacob’s body lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Shot in the head, he was obviously dead . . . the pistol he had shown her lying by his side. Julia’s father, a military man, had taught her enough about guns that she didn’t hesitate a moment to pick it up and quickly check to see that it was ready to fire again. No one would rape her now. There appeared to be two shells fired-evidently not as a signal, but to kill Jacob. Could it have been suicide? Then where was the car?

Soaked to the skin, Julia looked for a way to get dry. Much of the basic furniture was still there, a couch and chair set in the living room-but no television, no telephone, no magazines, no curtains. There were few personal things in the bathroom, but toilet paper, and, as if waiting for her, two large towels thrown over the shower bar. Laying the gun on top of the toilet tank, she got out of her wet clothes and used one towel to dry herself, then wrapped the other around her. In the bedroom there was a double bed, but the only bedding a sleeping bag. One of the broken windows was covered with a fancy quilt, old, but clean and dry enough that she put it around her shoulders.

Feeling much better, but avoiding Jacob’s body, she continued to explore the house. In the kitchen there was a table and chairs, but just a few odds and ends of dishes, pans, and silverware in a rack by the sink-enough to fix a quick meal, maybe. She was surprised to find a cup of tea on the table, barely lukewarm, as she stuck a finger in it, but with a thermos sitting next to it. The one who shot Jacob had evidently been drinking tea. A woman?

She was thinking of pouring herself a cup of tea when she heard a sound from the living room. She whirled, with the gun ready to fire, if Jacob had come back to life, but, in a steady voice, one of the two men who appeared at the kitchen door said, “Easy, lady. We’re the police. I’m Sheriff Johnson and this is my deputy, Roger Miles.”

The deputy asked, “Are you the one who called about this? Did you shoot that man?”

Then, in a tone of command, the sheriff said, “Put down that gun, please!”

She put the gun on the table. “No. I didn’t shoot him-but I would have. He tried to rape me. And no, I didn’t call. There’s no phone here. I looked for one-to call the police.”

The deputy looked at the telephone box. “It’s true, there’s no telephone, Sheriff.”

The sheriff shook his head. “It’s been almost three years since old man Roberts died and nobody has lived here since-so no gas, no electric, no telephone. His daughter, Gloria, lives across the highway with her aunt, I think . . . and the place has been let go.”

The deputy kneeled to examine the body. “You know who this is, Sheriff? It’s Jacob Smith, who used to live on the farm up the road.”

“I know. I used to go to school with him.” He looked at the shattered head. “But I might not have recognized him. That was Gloria Roberts who called, and she said that’s who it was.”

Julia said, “Yes, it is. He told me he grew up nearby when he brought me here. He parked there by the side of the house and took me out in the woods . . . to show me something, he said. Then he tried to rape me. Fortunately, I got away. While I was hiding, I heard two shots. Then I found my way back here-in that downpour-largely by accident. But his car was gone. Whoever shot him must have taken it. So you can’t suspect me of killing him, can you?”

“It looks pretty suspicious, don’t you think, him lying there shot to death and you with the gun in your hand ready to shoot whoever comes in next?”

“I just found the gun on the floor next to his body.”

The sheriff said, “Gloria was most concerned we find you. She didn’t know your name.”

“My name is Julia Barker.”

“She said we’d probably have to hunt for you out in the woods getting rained on-which it looks like you were. Lucky we didn’t have to. But she said she didn’t want you left here with no transportation. She did take the car.” He smiled. Then he found a woman’s jeans and sweatshirt among some odds and ends in the bedroom closet. “Work clothes,” he said. “Dry yourself good. Then get into these. Sorry, no underwear. Bundle up your stuff, and take that quilt along, which should keep you dry and warm enough until we can get you home.”

Julia did as he told her, then said she was ready to go.

“That was some shower you got caught in-but evidently after Jacob was shot,” the sheriff said. As they moved to the porch the sun was shining.

The deputy looked at the blue sky and said, “That’s Kansas weather.”

“Roger, you stay here and watch the body,” the sheriff said. “I’ll send Homer back with the medical people.”

On the way in the sheriff told Julia that Gloria would be waiting at the office. “I’ve known her a long time, too. If she says she’ll be there, she will. Funny thing, this with Jacob. They were high school sweethearts. We all thought she’d marry him, combining their two farms.”

As they drove up to the sheriff’s office, Julia said, “That’s his blue Toyota.”

Even before the sheriff introduced them, Julia knew it was the woman she’d seen Jacob arguing with in the lunch room . . . Gloria. Gloria said, “I’m sorry to have left you out in the rain . . . Julia? But I thought it better to report to the sheriff than go looking for you-and just get wet.” She smiled.

“That’s your farm?” Julia asked.

“Yes, I grew up there,” Gloria said. “Since my father died, I own it-and, while I’m not living there, I’d like to, if I can get enough help to make a farm out of it again.”

Julia told her what Jacob had said about helping her look for a farm boy.

“He was right. The house needs so much work, who’d be interested? And it sits back on that gravel road quite a ways from the highway-though I like to say it’s just a long driveway.”

“A long driveway,” Julia agreed. “How did you get there today?”

“I walked over from my aunt’s place, about a mile the other side of the highway, where I’m living now, to reappraise the present condition of the house on this nice sunny morning, thinking about doing some yard work. I was surprised to see Jacob’s car, and then I heard you call out. By the time I got to where I could see what was happening I saw you hit him and dodge into the woods. I saw Jacob had a gun, and retreated to the house, to find something to face him with.

“I thought about a pitchfork from the barn, but found an old baseball bat on the back porch. I was starting back to where you were when Jacob got back to the house and saw me. I made as if to smash the windshield on his Toyota with the baseball bat. I knew that’d get his attention. He fired his gun, right at my feet. He’d have killed me. I went back into the house, but he followed, evidently having decided to take me instead.”

She was talking to the sheriff now. “He came in holding that gun, saying, ‘Okay, Gloria. You were always the best, anyway, especially on a rainy day. Take off your things and head for the bedroom.’ He laughed. I started to take off my blouse, but when he got close enough, grabbed the baseball bat and hit the arm holding the gun. He dropped it and I picked it up. He tried to take it away, his anger showing in his eyes. I shot him right between those eyes, Sheriff.”

“In self-defense, of course,” Julia said.

“I’ll handle the law, if you don’t mind,” Sheriff Johnson remarked.

“Yes . . . self-defense . . . of course,” Gloria replied. “I could just have wounded him, I suppose, but didn’t have time to think about it. Then there he was, lying dead on the floor, and I didn’t know what to do. I called out, but where was I to look for you . . . Julia? So I got his keys and drove his Toyota back to Aunt Bertha’s, in the rain by then, to phone you . . . Sheriff. Then I drove here.”

Julia had to go to court, where she testified that Jacob had tried to rape her out in the woods before he’d tried to rape Gloria in the house. She told them how he’d shown her that gun and what she’d thought when she heard the shots. The judge did accept it was self-defense, for it was Jacob’s gun and he could have just driven away instead of pursuing Gloria into her house.

Sitting at her desk the following week Julia suddenly had an idea and called Gloria. “Meet me for lunch. I know you know where our lunch room is. I’d like your reaction to something.”

Julia made a point of being there early so she could watch Gloria walk in. Again, she liked the woman she saw. After Gloria sat down and ordered her sandwich, Julia said, “I hope you feel like finishing your sandwich today. I don’t feel hungry enough to eat two.” Gloria laughed, and Julia liked her laugh, too. But then Julia told her that she thought she might have killed Jacob for having brought another woman to her farm, and their special place, for sex.

Gloria smiled. “I had those feelings. And I wouldn’t have had to kill him,” she said. “I had the baseball bat and his gun. But it did make me angry when he took you to our place. In the fall, we sometimes wrapped up there in that same sleeping bag that’s now on the bed. Then Jacob, who’d said we’d get married, abandoned me, while I was still in high school-and pregnant-though I hadn’t told him. The day after he graduated, Jacob just drove away in that new Toyota of his, which he obviously loved more than he did me. When my father found out, he insisted I have an abortion, but I refused. I intended to have the baby. But that summer I fell, while we were putting up hay, and lost the baby. That’s what I was confronting Jacob with here that day you saw us.”

“So you felt that he’d betrayed you.”

“He had. Sheriff Johnson knew all that, but I didn’t tell him everything.”

“Oh, what didn’t you tell him?”

“That I was already in the house, drinking a cup of tea, when you arrived. So I heard what you said. I knew where you were going, and why, though I assumed you were a willing partner, and that he was probably planning to bring you back to the bedroom once it started raining. I followed you, just out of curiosity . . . not a very noble motive, I know. I was as surprised as Jacob probably was when you fought him off. I watched that whole scene. After you got away I went back to the house to wait for him.”

“Self-defense may not be the only justification,” Julie said. “But I like your candor. And I have an offer to make. In spite of my experience on your farm, with Jacob and the weather, and my inexperience in farm life, I liked the place-liked the house, liked the creek and flowers, liked the big open field. I’m tired of living alone in my upstairs apartment. I think I’d like to live there-with you-to share expenses and help make that a livable house again. Do you think that would work?” She reached over and took Gloria’s hand, more callused than her own.

Gloria looked into Julia’s eyes for a moment, then smiled. “Wouldn’t you be afraid of living out in the woods, just us two women?”

“I think I got the wrong impression about how wild those woods are, running around in circles that day, then getting caught in that downpour. What stays in my mind is how picturesque those flowers by the creek were, discovering that beautiful field of rye grass, and those big oak trees, particularly the one by the creek and the one that shades the house.”

“That rye field is on our farm. I rent it out now, but still own a tractor, and know how to plant a field of corn, or wheat. If you’ll help get the house in order, I could teach you to be a farmer . . . and a housewife. But wouldn’t you be afraid of wild animals out there?”

Julia smiled. “Neither of us seems afraid of guns, and you may already have killed the only wild beast we’ll ever meet in those woods. We’ll get a phone, so we can call Sheriff Johnson.”

Gloria looked at her-then shook her head. “I’ll think about it. But from the time I saw you hit Jacob with that branch, I’ve liked you. I’ll talk to the people at the bank, and to my aunt, and maybe Sheriff Johnson, and let you know.”

The next day, another Friday, Julia got a call from Gloria. “If you can get there, I’d like to meet you at our farm tomorrow. It should be a nice day. I don’t have a car, but enjoy the walk. Maybe I can buy Jacob’s Toyota when they put it up for auction. He’d love that.” She laughed.

Julia said she had a car, so could see what it would be like to commute.

“Good. I can show you around the place, and, if you still like it, we can begin to make plans. I’ll bring hot tea.”

“And I’ll bring sandwiches. Let’s plan on a picnic lunch there by the creek.”

* * *

Second Place in Wichita Mystery Story Contest, 2005

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