Jane Ellen Macdonald was a Methodist. A Free Methodist, in fact. She believed in the Holy Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and the debt paid by Christ, once and for all. She did not believe in magic. She was not permitted to believe in magic, as far as she knew. But she was 9, and she knew that they hadn’t taught her everything yet. Maybe she would learn about magic later. Or maybe magic was something even Pastor Jim and Miss Pamela, her beautiful red-haired Sunday School teacher, didn’t know about.
The First Wheatfield Free Methodist Church seemed so far away, now. And it was. Hundreds of miles, she guessed. Maybe thousands. Everything seemed different here in Florida. She tried to imagine what Miss Pamela would say if she was here with her, but she couldn’t. This bothered Jane Ellen because usually her imagination was powerful. It had never, as far as she could remember, ever failed before. But here she stood, staring up at the weird, headless statue in Marineland, unable to imagine Miss Pamela standing next to her. The image just wouldn’t appear. It reminded her of the time she tried to play her VHS of The Little Mermaid but it wouldn’t play, no matter how many times she pressed the triangle button.
She pretended her imagination was like a VCR and then she imagined pressing the triangle button to play the image she wanted, but she just got a field of white, jumpy specks like on the TV that day. It scared her for some reason that she didn’t understand and she knew she ought to feel silly about it. But she didn’t. Knowing she should feel silly but not feeling silly made her even more scared somehow.
Jane Ellen Macdonald jumped. She wasn’t thinking about the white, jumpy specks or Miss Pamela anymore. She was now wondering if she had heard someone say something and she was sure that she had, but who could it be? Her daddy was twenty feet away talking to the lady who sold tickets to the Undersea Wacky Golf stand. No, no, she reminded herself–it was her “dad,” not her “daddy.” Little kids say “daddy” and I’m big enough now to say “dad.”
But if it wasn’t her dad and there was no one else around, who had said it?
She thought someone had said “treasure” but maybe no one had said anything. Maybe she had imagined it. Maybe this feeling she called “magic” that came upon her when she saw the headless statue of the diving man was just her imagination, too. Imagination can be dangerous her daddy– her dad–had told her a few times. Pastor Jim had said the same thing to her once.
She definitely heard it that time. Someone had said “treasure” and she was sure it wasn’t her imagination. She walked behind the statue, but there was no one there. She looked up into the helmet, but she didn’t see a speaker up there. It was hollow.
She wanted to stand there under the statue, to hear it again. And she wanted to run away. She made a deal with herself. She would wait another minute and then she would go.
She waited. Nothing.
She walked away. She walked fast, but wouldn’t let herself run. That would be silly.
Her dad had gotten tickets for Wacky Undersea Golf and she was happy to play. On the third hole, which had an octopus wearing mittens, she asked her dad to tell her a story about her mother. Her mother had never been “mommy” or “mom.” She had died when Mary Ellen was a baby, so she had never been anything but “mother” and really just stories about “mother.” Still, she loved the stories and her dad never got tired of telling them.
Her dad had met her mom when they were both in college, he said. Her dad was getting something called an MBA and her mom was in “graduate school.” She had never understood this, because she was always told that a “graduate” was someone who was done with school. Her mother was studying marine archaeology, her dad said, but she dropped out after she had Mary Ellen.
When they got to the fifth hole, a pirate ship with three cannons, she asked if her mother wanted to go back to school. Her dad stopped and looked down at his shoes, which Mary Ellen knew was something he did when he felt sad but didn’t want to cry in front of her.
He said, “No, sweetie. She said she didn’t need to go back. She said, she had found what she was looking for.”
Mary Ellen asked, “What did she say she was she looking for, Dad?”
She had never heard this story before, but somehow she already knew what her dad would say next.
Random Nouns: debt, field
This is the fifth story in my Random Roadside series. In this series, I pick a random image from John Margolies’ Roadside America photography collection at the Library of Congress and use it as the setting for a story. I allow a computer program to randomly select the genre I will write in and two nouns, which I must work into the story.