(To Richard & Harlee, May you always be together…)

TO GATHER BROKEN STONE
Kat Renee Kittel

"To everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven." -Ecclesiastes 3:1

The sun barely shone on the frosty ground from the cloudy, dawn sky. The weather looked a promising 52 degrees for the high though. No real sign of winter yet. Normal for Kansas, but I didn't mind. Not that cold. Still, sneaking into the backyard of the old Arkansas River Mansion didn't seem like such a good idea anymore. Not the best of times to be out taking chances. Maybe I should just keep walking down the alley. Mostly everyone avoided the creepy weird castle-like stone house. Mom would always get upset whenever I ventured near the place, but I had to find evidence for her sake. And I needed to avoid being seen leaving the neighborhood this early before time for Middle school, since my new phantom invisibility had just worn off.

The River Castle's large stone boulders had started showing minor cracks years ago from the thick ivy vines covering most of the walls. Used to belong to a cattleman back in the 1800's. Someone bought the estate from his descendants twenty some years ago. The eccentric owner moved, leaving the place locked up. A tall wooden privacy fence closed off the back of the estate from the rest of the world. Neighbors say the owner only shows up once or twice a year, around Passover in the spring and Sukkot in the fall, but I had never seen him and didn't particularly want to. Being December and almost Hanukkah, I hoped the place would be safe enough to check out while I came up with a plan to leave town and never come back.

Since the owner rarely showed, the braver kids liked to sneak in and raid the tangled up old fruit trees just inside the fence on the way to and from school, even though something seemed awfully strange about trees having fruit way after the normal season. Danny down the street—who didn't mind playing basketball with a middle school kid—told me he always had dreams about future events after eating one of the golden pears. My other friends had similar experiences, but nothing different ever happened to me, at least not from having a silly old pear.

I moved the loose board in the privacy fence by the alley and pushed my backpack in, before slipping through myself. Shoving my hair in my baseball cap, I set my backpack carefully on my unbruised left shoulder. I went further into the half-acre garden and over to the gnarled up old golden pear tree leaning into the old stone carriage house, thickly covered with the same ivy vines as the castle. This particular tree still had fruit not scavenged by birds or the high school kids that yesterday morning must not have ventured in this far.

I inspected the lower branches for a really good one, hiding under the leaves near the trunk, pulled the fruit off the branch and rubbed the skin on the front of my old tan jacket. I took a bite out of the middle. The sweet juice trickled down my chin. Not having a napkin, I wiped my mouth on my worn out jacket sleeve.

That's when I saw the black Mercedes parked in the circle driveway inside the private wooden fence. My mental radar went into high gear. I concentrated on raising my auditory perception. Yeah, voices definitely came from the basement window barely peeking out from behind the evergreen bushes, just right of the raised stone patio that sprawled across almost half of the back of the mansion.

The patio had two sets of steps, one on the far left, at the edge of the house by the driveway and another set several feet in front of the double glass inlaid doors. A thin crack in the porch angled across a recently swept path through the dried up oak leaves.

Maybe I'd find some answers to Mom's supposed accident down our basement stairs. The man I thought had been my dad and that other man Perry had talked about destroying evidence left in the River Mansion's basement last night. I put the fruit in my pocket, and slipped the backpack straps over both shoulders of my jacket, carefully avoiding the bruises on my right arm and shoulder as best I could. Bare hands in my pockets I quietly padded through the run down garden—sockless in my old sneakers—trying to stay on the stone tiled path broken up and overgrown with tall weeds. Dozens of unkempt flowering bushes sprawled everywhere, unattended for as long as I could remember.

The thick untidy evergreen hedges in front of the basement windows made for great cover. Trying not to put pressure on my bruised arm and legs, I slowly eased into a crouching position among the branches and set the dark backpack under me. Focusing on my new invisibility, I blended my appearance into the greenery, the jeans being the easiest to start the camouflage—blue to dark green.

Through the small basement window, the tense scene displayed below. A tall, furious man stood over someone to my left. He had almost the same light olive complexion as my grandparents who run the Polish restaurant on East 13th Street, but more like my pale lack of pink. With a strong nose, long face and thin lips tightly drawn together, his deep-set brown eyes blazed under thick dark brows and graying hair forcefully scattering over his high forehead. In an expensive black leather trench coat and gloves, he towered over a much shorter fat faced alien looking being with strange vine like arms and hands waving threateningly in the air. The fingertips looked like suction cups. In fact, the shorter guy's clothes looked more like woven green leaves. I couldn't make out the shorter guy's legs, except he seemed to be standing in the dirt of some huge clay pot.

The plant man thing laughed like my stepfather. "The woman liked me, but I took care of her. I obeyed Thomas James."

The taller man's eyes flashed vividly green. "You will obey me now, and never leave this pot again!"

"I will comply." The vine like hands stopped threatening the man and lowered to the thing's sides.

The taller guy ordered, "Go to sleep. Today is moving day," and walked past my window to the right and out of the open doorway.

The mannish looking plant smugly closed what looked like mouth and eyes, before settling into the pot of dirt. After several minutes, the plant thing appeared to be sleeping. Suddenly a metal bucket flew through the air from the doorway, and tilted over the plant, dumping a huge amount of liquid on top of the green skinned being. The bulgy eyes opened and while the vine like hands fought to somehow fling the liquid off, the weirdly shaped mouth gasped. The bucket hovered in the air. Tendrils pulled at what looked like a neck. Eyes swelled closed. The plant being started shriveling up and I looked away. When I turned back to the window, the man-like alien plant had become a potted mess of shriveled up vines and leaves spilling onto the floor. The bucket sat upright by the ceramic pot. The awful acid stench seeped into my nose from the cracks around the closed window. I stifled a cough.

The tall man walked back into the room, nose wrinkled up. He turned on the table fan. Taking out a cell phone, he made a call and quickly placed the receiver to his ear. "This is Adler. Still no sign at either house? …What about the restaurant? …Alright, Randy, use the subspace quantum sensor array again. She can't be too far. Scan for minimal emission of parallel wave signatures this time…" He frowned, pacing the room. "No, Jacob, they can't leave to look for her… Of course, they can take the big silver Hanukkah menorah with them. Send Marina to get the Maharil Hanukkiah and anything else they want from the restaurant, but they're not leaving their house… When will the moving van be here?" He checked his watch. "Switch me back to Randy… What did you find?" He paced, listening. "Are you sure? Check again!" He raised his voice—made him cough. Abruptly he looked up at my window.

Quickly I pushed the tangled bushes back, but not soon enough. I caught a glimpse of his piercing green eyes. Could he have sensed my invisible presence blending into the evergreen bushes? I let out my breath, but deeply inhaled again. Oh, great. I had moved the branches, and no strong Kansas wind blowing yet today. I ventured another peek. Cell phone back in his pocket, he casually turned off the table fan and began sweeping the floor. He swept all the shriveled up vines and leaves on the floor into the metal bucket, then set the broom and dustpan by some boxes in one corner. Retrieving his cell phone again, he pointed to the pot. When he pressed a button on the phone, a wide blue beam shone on the pot and bucket. They disappeared. He walked out and never looked up.

I turned away and moved my back to the stone wall, in between the hedge by the porch and the one in front of the window. Maybe I was safe, or maybe he just didn't care if anyone saw what happened. After all, who would believe me that an alien plant killed my mom? And now the evidence had been destroyed. I prayed they were looking for someone else, but that sure sounded like my grandparents he held hostage. His voice could have belonged to the man I fled from in the foggy night cemetery around three this morning. He could be the one my stepfather Tommy James and his friend answered to. This guy didn't look like he took orders from anyone.

I wondered if the mannish looking thing had just been some kind of strange plant and not really an alien being after all. Why not? I remembered a funny story my third grade teacher once read, the one about the plant who only eats smelly socks. Maybe this one just talked. Did look like a huge Venus Fly Trap with buggy eyes. Still afraid to move from the bushes, I slipped the backpack through my arms, putting up with the shoulder ache and waited for the moving van, wondering what that plant-thing used to eat. If that's what had killed my mother, at least the thing had only used those suction cup hands and not consumed her, too. I shuddered, relieved the monster had been taken care of.

I buried my face in my hands, careful of the bruise on my forehead and cut on my cheek. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I held back tears clouding my eyes. My mind went back to how the police detectives pulled me out of school. "There's been an accident," they told me on the ride home in their car. Once home the man I always thought was my Dad just faked his tears, pretending to console me. The ambulance had already taken mom away, and the casket was closed yesterday. At the gravesite, when Grandpa said Kaddish, I was still too numb to think. I just held his hand and didn't pray.

Scared now, I fought the urge to run. Where could I go that they wouldn't think to look? Abba, Abba, what do I do? They've got my grandparents. Their house and restaurant, and my house are under surveillance. I can't go to the police. How are they going to believe me without any proof? Mama's gone, and I don't know who my real father is. All I have is You.

The words to a song Grandpa cantered last Friday's Sabbath service, Adon Olam calmly emerged from the depths of my soul.

He is my living God who saves. My Rock when grief, or sorrows fall. My banner and my refuge strong. My cup of life, whenever I call. And in His hand I place my soul. Both when I sleep, and when I wake. And with my soul, and body too. God is with me, there is no fear.

I lifted my head and inhaled the cool winter air. I replaced my cold hands in my pockets. A peace settled in my spirit. No, running couldn't be the right direction. I came to find answers, and for Mom's sake I would find them.