Excerpt: "Small as a Mustard Seed" by @Shelli_Johnson

Title: Small as a Mustard Seed

Author: Shelli Johnson
Website: Click HERE.
Twitter: @Shelli_Johnson
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Synopsis: As a child in 1960's rural Ohio, Ann Marie Adler finds herself caught between her father, Frank, a veteran who survived the war in Korea but with devastating post-traumatic stress, and her mother, Adele, who is blindsided by the mental illness that accompanied him home. In a series of escalating dangerous episodes, Frank confuses reality with soul-searing memories, believing he's still a soldier fighting for his life in battle-torn Korea. During the delusions, Ann Marie and her younger sister, Jolene, become the enemy, which leaves them fearing for their lives. Unable to fully protect her daughters, Adele scrambles to keep order while her husband's threatening and unpredictable outbursts slowly tear the family apart.



“I ain’t afraid this time.  I ain’t some kid don’t know shit from Shinola,” my father hollered as he stood in the driveway.

In the curve of his chest, pressed tight against the denim of his overalls, he clutched a black revolver.  The other hand combed through the short dark hairs of his flattop.  My father was six foot two, two hundred twenty pounds, and in the soft morning light, he cast a long shadow across the courtyard.

I squatted in the pasture, some hundred or so feet away, nudging the top of my head around one corner of the barn.  I was ten that year, a slip of a girl, short for my age, brown-eyed and dark-haired.  Storm clouds blackened the sky and a cool rain started to fall as I watched him crack open the gun’s chamber to check that it was loaded, smile ever so slightly, then snap it back closed.

Just a few minutes earlier, we’d all been in the kitchen except for my mother, who was humming softly through her closed bedroom door.  My sister Jolene — thin, blonde, and eight years old — had been using a knife to scoop strawberry jelly from the jar.  The dollop was too round, the knife too flat, and her movement too fast, so the jelly vaulted through the air and splattered against the floor.  What should have been a simple mess to clean up was not.  My father stared at the stain, his eyes glassing over.  He pushed himself away from the table with a grunt and, favoring a right hip wounded during the war in Korea, stilted side-to-side toward the cupboard.  He groped along the top shelf, behind a stack of dusty teacups, and pulled out the gun.  He cut his eyes toward my sister and me, gun barrel pointing at the floor, his finger against the trigger.

Jolie’s face paled.  The knife in her hand clattered to the table.

“Daddy?” I said.

“Goddamned Communists,” he answered.

I grabbed Jolie’s wrist, yanking her from the kitchen to the foyer, past shoes lined up in two neat rows and coats piled on hooks in the wall.  Clothed only in pajamas and socks, we raced out the front door, sprinting toward the pasture where we hid at the edge of the barn.  Breathing hard, Jolene huddled up behind me, her body shivering against mine.  We watched our father limp toward us, the gun dipping toward his belly before he stuffed it into the pocket of his overalls.

“Goddamn, I ain’t kidding.”  Softer, he added, “Edgecomb ain’t gonna bite it ’cause of me.”

Jolene slid her fingers against my waist and squeezed.  “You got to hide.  I’ll go to the woods.  I’ll draw him out.  It’s me he wants.”

“You’re crazy,” I shot back.

Something in the hay field, opposite where we were, caught my father’s attention, and as he stared in that direction, Jolene made an odd clucking sound and whispered,  “It’s always me he wants.  You just hide in the barn and don’t get caught.”

“I’m not gonna —” But I never finished.  She hauled me backward in the muck, shoving me through the barn’s side door.  The doorjamb framed her for a moment, and then she darted into the rain, slamming the door behind her and leaving me in darkness.

Before I could even get my bearings, the overhead lamps burned oblong patches across the dirt floor.  Three or four of the horses nickered softly.  I cowered next to the side door, cool air bleeding beneath its bottom edge.  I had about eight feet of passageway before it widened into the vast, open expanse of the barn’s center.  I couldn’t see my father, but I knew he must be near the light switch, some fifty feet from me.

“It ain’t feeding time,” he said to the horses.  “You seen them two gooks?  Both’d be good, but either one’ll do.”  A minute later, his boots clopped across the sawdust.  I heard him snap on the light in the feed room and yell, “Hah!” With my heart like a jackhammer in my chest, I threw my shoulder against the side door only to find Jolene had latched it from the outside.  In the feed room, my father tossed bags of corn and bales of hay out of his way.  He said, “It ain’t right, them gooks shooting Edgecomb like that.”

I gulped a deep breath and crawled to the nearest stall.  Our old buckskin mare, her tan coat flaked with dried mud, stared at me.   I spotted the darkest corner, ripped a square of hay from the feed bin, and hunkered down so low that my behind smacked into sawdust and manure.  I covered myself with the hay as best I could.  In the feed room, my father sideswiped a plastic bucket full of grooming tools, their metal edges scraping across the concrete floor. A point in the center of my head throbbed.  My knees ached.  I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my spine harder against the plank-board wall.  Head bowed, fingers steepled between where my breasts would someday be, I prayed two things with soft words that swirled feathery puffs of air against my knuckles: first, that he wouldn’t see me tucked in the corner of this tiny stall, and second, that if he did, he would get whatever he was going to do over with quick.

Back in the main part of the barn, my father jerked the light switch a half-dozen times.  He yelled, “You in here, you Communist?”

My slow, deliberate breathing was enormously loud.  I clamped my lips together, but that just made my lungs burn and my face prickle.  I remember how everything seemed so thunderous while I flattened myself into the corner, trying hard to be small and quiet.  I listened to my father’s boots thump across the floor and then stop at the first stall in the line.  He worked the latch back and forth, the door rumbling open on its track.  Wind blew through the cracks, carrying my father’s scent, something strong and thick like burning paper, like wet leaves smoldering in the fall.  It was an odor I would come to know later as the stench of his sickness.  Above me in the hayloft, a lone cricket chirped, and I thought I’d go out of my head with that sound, a noise so normal in a place where I’d bitten through my bottom lip and blood seeped along my chin, in a place where my bladder had let go and I crouched in a puddle of my own urine.

“You in there?” my father growled.  “Come on out and make it easy on yourself.”