This week’s free Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Fences.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Smashwords and Amazon. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
I wrote this story for my third writing workshop at NC State, and it’s one of those landmark stories where I feel like I took a huge step forward with my writing voice. I still very much love this story, especially the ending. “Fences” was named an Honorable Mention story and published in the O. Henry Festival Stories in March, 1998.
Note: This story is rated PG for language and excessive spitting. You’ve been warned.
Canton woke with a gasp, his ears cold and the taste of metal in his mouth from the worn-out space heater two feet away from his bed. It must have dropped below freezing again, he thought, staring at the scratches of frost crisscrossing the two mismatched windows of the guest house. The bedroom he left behind five years ago had been offered to him on an almost daily basis since his return home, but Canton couldn’t share a roof with anyone else right now. He needed the space – such as it was in his parents’ eight-by-ten renovated storage shed – that the guest house offered. It wouldn’t be much longer until he was back on his feet again.
The promise he’d made about the fence for the horses pulled him out of bed at ten minutes after seven. This was the first big task he’d been given since he came back, and he knew his father had grudgingly assigned the job to him. Mom had been afraid to ask anything of Canton since his return, and Dad liked things to be “just so” when it came to one of his projects.
He pulled a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt on over his long johns. The icy linoleum’s touch seeped through his woolen socks, and he could have sworn he saw his breath puff out in front of his cheeks. Buttoning a flannel shirt over his sweatshirt with some difficulty, Canton reviewed his father’s instructions about how to put in the fence.
“The whole fence has to be level, both on the horizontal and the vertical planes,” Dad had said more than once. “If you get off-center more than an inch or two, you might as well give it up.” Canton had taken enough math classes in college to understand what his father meant the first time, but he had sat through the repetition of the instructions in silence. The space heater shuddered and fell silent when Canton clicked it off. He left the chill of the guest house, surprised at the relative warmth outside. For some reason, the small guest house was always cold.
In the workshop next to the guest house, Dad had laid out the necessary tools: a fat ball of weather-proof string, an old tape measure, a post hole digger with red clay dried to the blades, a narrow shovel, and of course, the silver three-foot level. All of the tools sat in a wheelbarrow next to the table saw. As he inhaled the mixture of motor oil and sawdust, Canton froze, thinking for a second that his father stood behind him, checking up on him. He pulled on some thick work gloves, worn shiny on the palms by Dad’s constant use, and gripped the handles of the wheelbarrow.
The new fence was for the two Tennessee walking horses his father had purchased a month ago, two days before Canton left his job in Charlotte. A mother and a colt, both of them deep brown with touches of white on their foreheads and patches of white on their forelegs. According to Dad’s stories, Blaze, the mother, could work herself into a fast trot that was smooth as riding in a car. Canton had to take his father’s word for this; he’d never learned to ride, so he kept a safe distance from the massive creatures. All he knew about horses was that it was bad luck to have a horse with white on only one leg, and he was jarred on his first day back home to find that Shadow, the ten-month-old colt, had only one thin circle of white above his front right hoof. This bothered Canton more than it should have, he thought. Blaze and Shadow watched him from their pasture, standing in identical poses of curious attention. He gave both horses a quick nod on his way across the dying grass of the front yard.
Pushing the wheelbarrow in front of him, the tools rattling in the cart and the axle squeaking, he trudged past the old barbed wire fence that he would have to pull out once he had the new fence in place. The rusted wires and weathered gray posts stood like a shaky pencil outline of the sturdy wooden fence Canton had already built in his mind. Long shadows hung over the horse’s field next to him, frosting the grass with white highlights where the sun missed it. Shadow called out to him from the two-acre pasture, a long scolding sound. I’m working on it, boy, Canton thought. Get off my case.
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