Smoke belched from a still burning fire in the distance. Undoubtedly some idiot had dropped their cigar, and now the whole town was paying for their mistake. Children darted up onto the raised wooden sidewalks as a team of foaming horses and mules lugged a large wooden barrel of rich crude oil placed precariously on a thick wooden cart. A few men shouted at the scant remaining children, more out of habit than out of any real need. The oily smell of crude hung in the air coating the inside of mouths and throats. Everyone who didn't have business with the derricks stayed to the side of the street farthest from the tightly packed row. Men, who never bothered to come to the ground in order to get from one derrick to another, shouted curses as they worked tirelessly at whatever it was they did.
Dust devils swirled around the barren school yard as the last late girl ran into the squat little school house. At the top of the steps the little school teacher stood shooing them all inside. She waited until the last girl hustled in, and then she followed them in. Inside of the school house children, ranging from just having let go of Ma's apron strings to those who were almost old enough to be working the derricks themselves, chattered while the plump school marm made her way up the aisle. Things were just starting to settle down when one more girl, who was bordering on a young woman, burst through the door. She was a mess of dirty red curly hair, and mussed unkempt clothes.
"Please take your seat Ms. Rogers," said the marm without turning. A few of the students laughed, but most just rolled their eyes. She quickly took her seat, averting her eyes from the other students. The teacher opened her mouth and began breathing to speak when the girl shot up again out of her seat. No one moved, and no on bothered looking when the door to the school house opened again. An older woman, who looked more than a little put upon, handed a slate and pail over to the girl. The woman who must have been her mother, left and she finally sat.
The rest of class went on without any other outbursts. After a few hours the plump little school marm called everyone to take a break for lunch. Each student gathered up their lunch things, and went to join their group of friends. The curly red head gathered her things to go as well,
"Ms. Rogers," mused the school marm, "Will you come here for a moment please?"
"Yes Mrs. Reuth," said the girl with a wince.
"I wanted to discuss something with you before class restarted. From now on I've felt that it would be best if we no longer continued music lessons. Instead we will be doing more studies on science and math. We will also be focusing more on reading and writing," she said while she continued to shuffle through papers on her desk.
"…but Mrs. Reuth…that's my favorite subject! Why can't we continue?" the girl asked angrily.
"Certain folks in this town felt it would be best not to continue. I know you are disappointed, but you show a frightening aptitude…"
"…but it's not fair!" shouted the girl.
"Stop it Imogen!" Mrs. Reuth snapped, "You know perfectly well why you must stop. I will stand for no more whining! Go now and eat your lunch while you still have time to finish," It was an obvious dismissal, and Imogen knew it. She didn't like it, but she didn't have a choice either. She gathered her lunch, and left the school house sheepishly. The sunlight outside helped to alleviate some of the anger she felt, but not all of it. Music had been the one subject she had enjoyed the most. It came easily to her. It was almost like breathing. She could do is as instinctively, and also felt the loss of it immediately. For as long as she could remember she had been singing little songs and ditties. It just wasn't fair that they would take this away from her now. They were just scared, and that wasn't her fault.
"What did Mrs. Reuth have to say Imi," asked her friend Berty.
"They've decided that it's best to stop music classes," said Imogen glumly. She looked up at Berty, and took a vicious bite out of her sandwich.
"Well Imi it was bound to happen eventually," said Berty. Imogen threw her sandwich into her lunch pail, and stood up in disgust.
"Why does everyone keep saying that?! I just really like music. I want to be able to learn how to get better," she fumed as she began to pace back and forth in front of her friend.
"Yes, but Imi you show too much aptitude. It frightens the townspeople, because you show such a strong aptitude," she said paused as Imogen opened her mouth again to start yelling again.
"Oh come off it Imi you know that this is the age when people find whether or not they have any aptitude in "the arts". You know as well as I that your musical interest is as sure a sign of it as anything else could be," snapped Berty cutting her off before she had a chance to get going again ,"Sometimes you are just so dense Imi it's amazing." Imogen turned and glared at her friend. For a moment she could think of nothing to say so she sank back down onto the ground. They sat for a few moments in silence Berty ate and Imogen just kept staring at her sandwich.
"I know you are disappointed Imi," began Berty again, "It really is for the best you know."
"So what am I supposed to do for the rest of my life? Am I supposed to stay mute and miserable in this dusty hell hole? How is everyone forcing me to be unhappy good for me?" Imogen snapped jumping to her feet again. Berty sighed and set aside her lunch pail. She stared at Imogen through dull brown eyes unsure what to say to her friend. Imogen turned and stared at her with hands on slender hips. She waited expectantly for the answer she knew she wouldn't receive. Berty started to open her mouth, but was interrupted by the bell calling them all back to class.
Imogen looked at her half eaten sandwich, and threw it back in her pail. She was suddenly not interested in her lunch. She shuffled in after her classmates, and threw her pail into her cubby rather more loudly than she meant. Mrs. Reuth shot her a knowing look, and shook her head. Imogen sat down heavily, and stared gloomily at the front of the room. The rest of class went by slowly, and when the time came that was normally music time Mrs. Reuth simply kept going over English lessons. Only a few students seemed to notice the change in the day. A few of those who did notice looked briefly at Imogen, but quickly looked away. None of the other students said anything.
When it was time to leave Imogen simply picked up her things, and stormed out of the door. She didn't even wait for Berty to catch up, instead she veered off towards one of the vast less productive fields. Out in the fields several nodding donkeys stood mute. Here the stench of oil grew strongest, but Imogen was too used to it to notice. She stomped her way around the jacks kicking up dry dust in the process. The young man working on a broken pump jack a little ways off in the distance turned and watched as she silently arrived in a red dust cloud.
"Well what has you so upset today Imi?" said the young man as he wiped his large oil stained hands on the sides of his overalls. He dropped down to the ground, and threw the wrench he had been using into the bag at the foot of the jack. She looked up at him with piercing green eyes, and threw her book bag next to his.
"They cut music from school today," she said angrily. And began to pace again, "The one thing I love to do more than anything else, and they cut it for my own good! It's just not fair Ethan. So what if it means that I could possess "the art", isn't it worse not to train me?" Ethan looked at her with sympathetic blue eyes, and ran a hand through his dusty blonde hair. She stared at him pointedly waiting for some sort of answer.
"Imi you know it's just because they are afraid for you. Try not to take it personally. They really do mean you well in their own way," he said as he turned to reaffix the front plate to the jack's gear box. He secured it and then flipped the reserve power switch.
"I know they think that. I know they think that it would just be better if I didn't even have the obvious capacity for it. I just feel like the more they hold me back the worse it could be. If it even happens. They are making a fuss over nothing it seems like, No one from my family has ever had the smallest aptitude let alone been good enough to go to the conservatory. It's ridiculous that they think it's anything more than I just really like music," she fumed dropping down onto the dirt next to her bag. Ethan swore under his breath, and pounded on the derrick's gear box.
"Damn this thing! I've been trying to fix this jack for a week now," he muttered to himself. Imogen looked up at him, and he looked down at her.
"Anything I can do to help?" she asked. He cracked a smile showing slightly crooked white teeth.
"I'm sorry Imi. I'm just frustrated. I know you are to," he said as he took a spot in the dirt next to her, "You know you can always sing. No one can stop you from that."
"I'm afraid they are going to try though," she said. She reached over, and grabbed her lunch pail. She pulled the top off and offered it to him. He wiped his hands off on his pants again, and put it in his lap.
"You know you've got to stop letting this kind of stuff stop you from eating." Ethan said as he dug out an untouched sandwich half.
"But Ethan, you would never get enough to eat then," Imogen responded. He bit off some sandwich, and chewed thoughtfully for a moment.
"You're right. Your mom is a way better cook than my old man. I would hate to lose the good meal," he mused as he popped the last of the other sandwich half in his mouth. Imogen rolled her eyes, and punched him in the arm. He laughed and reached into the pail for the rest of the contents.
"What am I going to do Ethan? Ma is already hard enough on me. This whole life is hard on me. This was the one thing that really made me happy. Now everyone around me is trying to take it away from me, because of something that won't happen," she said with a sigh.
"Maybe this devotion is what they are so afraid of. You are so set on all of this that it makes it seem all that much more real to them," he said punctuating his sentence with a burp. Imogen looked at him sideways, and shook her head.
"Yeah I guess that makes some sense, but then again of course it would you're always right."
"I'm so glad you finally figured it out," he laughed. He reached over, and grabbed her taking her head under his arm. She pushed against him trying to avoid an inevitable noogie.
"Ethan! Stop you're armpits stink!" she shrieked.
"Suck it in it's the smell of man Imogen," he said with a grin. She shoved him and he finally let her go. She spluttered and fell back against the dirt.
"Ethan you're disgusting," she said laughing for the first time. He smiled and stood up offering her a hand up.
"Good, there's that laugh I've been aiming for this whole time," he said with a smirk. Imogen sighed, and brushed dust from her dress and hair.
"Thanks Ethan you always make me feel better.
"What else are friends for Imi? Come on I'll walk you home. Your Ma is probably starting to wonder what's taking so long."
"Yeah I'm sure she has a whole list of things she wants me to do," Imogen said with a sigh. She reached down, and picked up her bag. Dust puffed off of the bag in little clouds as she attempted to shake it clean. Ethan picked up his own bag and slung it over his shoulder. He smirked and snatched Imogen's bag out of her hands then took off at a run. Imogen yelled out, and began to pound after him. By the time they reached the fence they were being followed by a substantial cloud of dust.
"Fine you can carry it," Imogen huffed as she stopped a little ways behind him. Ethan stopped, and turned to wait for her to catch up grinning all the while.
"I was going to anyways." Imogen punched him in the shoulder playfully , then fell into step beside him. They walked on past other smaller fields in silence. Imogen's house stood a little ways off with nothing to block the view except for a few mesquite bushes. Just like every other house in town it was clap board white washed to protect the wood, and sprawled a little awkwardly to each side. A few of Imogen's younger siblings were running around their front yard chasing after an old hen that was more pet than livestock now. Her two oldest brothers were driving a few stray goats into the barn for the night. Her oldest brother Jake looked up, and waved when he saw them coming. Imogen looked sideways at Ethan and grinned mischievously. She turned, and grabbed a bag pulling him off balance, then took off at a sprint.
"First one there wins!" she shouted over her shoulder. Ethan caught his balance and growled as he took off after her. Red curls flew out behind her as she ran for all she was worth. Ethan pounded behind her on well muscled legs that were much longer. He easily began to catch her even with the weight of the extra bag. Ethan steamed past her, a big smirking locomotive. Imogen dug in and put on a little more speed, but it wasn't enough to catch him. He beat her to the step and then dropped down. She dropped down next to him a few seconds later. For a few seconds they were too out of breath to say anything so they just sat gasping in silence.
"Now I know what was taking so long," said her mother through the screen door behind them. Imogen looked up at her mother with a smirk.
"Well he did say your cooking is real good ma," replied Imogen already beginning to stand.
"Of course Ethan can stay he just can't get in the way is all," said her mother as she wiped worn hands on an equally faded apron.
"Course not Mrs. Rogers," said Ethan. He stood as well and shuffled inside with Imogen. Her mother swooped back into the kitchen stuffing stray pieces of graying red hair back into her bun. She took up station at the pot so she could continue prodding the sizzling meat at the bottom. Imogen took up a knife that had just been put down to finish chopping onions and potatoes. Ethan stood in the kitchen door way clutching his hat, and shifting back and forth on his feet awkwardly.
"I think I'm gonna go outside and see if your Pa and brothers need any help with the goats," Ethan said as he turned for the door.
"Thank you Ethan. Will you shoo Lee Ella back in here? She has spent more than enough time milking," Imogen's Ma asked, though it was clearly not a question.
"Yes Ma'am," Ethan replied as he let the door shut behind him. For a few moments mother and daughter worked together in silence. Imogen finished chopping, and brought the vegetables to her mother. After she had set them down she went to the small broom cupboard to grab her worn apron. She threw her unruly hair up into a messy bun so that it wouldn't get in her way. Her mother slid over to make room for her at the stove in front of a warming skillet. Imogen could hear her mother singing softly under her breath. Imogen chimed in finding herself incapable of staying quiet. In no time both mother and daughter were singing over the cooking supper. Lee Ella came in not to long after carrying a pitcher of fresh milk and freshly churned butter. She set them down with a smile, and headed over to the oven joining in the song as she went.
Cook a meal for family
Cook a meal for friends
Butter churned sweet and salty
Milk brought in fresh and warm
Hope for bread with crust that crunches
Hope for meat that runs with juices
Sop it up with laughter
Finish it 'til bellies full
Let the ladle churn out magic
Then carve me off a slice of fun
Serve it up piping hot
eat it quick as you can
Imogen smiled broadly working with the fervor that song always brought her. Her mother stared intently at her stewed meat as if directing the song at it. Imogen started adding extra harmony, and the music began to swell until they could almost feel it bouncing around the room. Abruptly it all stopped, with Imogen left singing by herself. She realized that the others had stopped and looked up. Her mother was staring at her with the ladle stopped dead in the pot. Imogen looked at her mother then at her sister. They both looked like they had just realized a spider was crawling up the comforter.
"Oh this is just unbelievable," spat Imogen. She threw down the her wooden spoon in disgust, with fingers made clumsy in anger, she tried to get her apron strings undone. When she got it loose, she threw it into the broom cupboard, and stormed out of the kitchen. Lee Ella shook her head as she looked up sighing at her younger sister through pale blue eyes. Her mother watched sighing as well.
"Take my spoon Ella, there is plenty of bread already. I should have known this was going to happen," said her mother as she wiped her hands on her apron.
"She just doesn't understand how horr…," began Lee Ella only to be silenced by her mother's hand.
"I don't want to hear another word outta you Lee Ella. Take the meat over before the supper spoils," her mother said with finality. Lee Ella moved to the big stew pot knowing there would be no further discussion. Ma silently followed after Imogen. Ma stopped before the door. She took a moment to take stock of the situation before knocking on Imogen's door.
"I don't want to talk. I already know what you're gonna say," came the annoyed voice from within. Ma shook her head, slowly pushing the door open on the small cozy room. She sat down on the side of the bed and folded her hands in her lap. Imogen stared at her over knees that were pressed to her chest.
"This isn't something that people take lightly Imogen. They didn't make this decision lightly. They didn't just do it because they wanted to make you unhappy. Those conservatory folk just don't really match up with that dream inside your head. There are plenty of good reasons we don't want to know if you are capable of "the art". There are people who would try to use that against you, and I know you think you can just go to the conservatory but it just isn't that easy. It isn't just over the next hill Imogen," said her mother, mostly to her own folded hands.
"What hills?" asked Imogen sardonically.
"Don't sass your mother. It isn't up for discussion. This is the only way that we can protect you from people who would want to use your gifts for their own gain."
"Ma, I just like to sing. There isn't any of "the art" in it. It's silly for all of you to think so. I just want to sing, and learn about music."
"Imogen you have to know that it isn't that simple. Why can't you just sing at work or in church like everyone else and be happy?" asked Ma in exasperation.
"Well you think that's even to much. We can't even have music in school anymore. It's like none of you ever want to do anything musical ever again. Why can't I just study music at conservatory no "Art" involved?"
"That's not how it works Imogen. They aren't interested in just teaching people how to sing."
"How would you know? How does anyone in this stupid town know? No one has ever gone there or met any of those people. You're all just saying these things without knowing anything," she cried pushing herself off of the bed.
"You listen to me Imogen Marie Rogers, there is going to be no more talk of this. We've all decided, your family included, that this is for the best. Some day you will realize that. For now though you need to be polite and not neglect your friend. He's still a guest in this house, and I won't have you treating him unkindly. Supper should almost be ready, so you go out and fetch your Pa, Ethan and your brothers," Ma finished angrily.
"Yes Ma'am," Imogen replied just barely meaning it. She shuffled out of her room avoiding even looking at her mother. She made for the front door. Lee Ella stood watching her from the kitchen shaking her head. Imogen ignored them both and headed for the barn. Outside the sun was just beginning to set. Off in the distance the lights of the big refinery were already on. It had dominated the horizon for all of Imogen's life. She didn't give it a second glance as she passed. Her brothers were wrestling the last goat into the barn. Ethan was walking behind making sure that the goat didn't bolt or turn. As she came into the yard her Pa looked up with a smiling face.
"What brings you out to us Imi?" Pa asked.
"Food is ready. Ma sent me out to tell you," Imogen said matter of factly trying her best not to sulk. Ethan noticed something was wrong but didn't say anything.
"Perfect timing, we just got the last of the goats in," he grunted fastening the latch on the last stall. Her oldest brother smiled, and rustled her hair. He turned with her to head back to the house. Imogen walked quietly. She didn't say anything even when Ethan nudged her pointedly. Imogen simply shook her head and rushed to the door.
Everyone filed into the house to take their seat at the table. Imogen avoided looking at her mother and sister. She sang the prayer with little vigor. Her mother smiled as if to encourage her. She had noticed that Imogen seemed to be taking her advice. The look made Imogen grimace. She had been ravenously hungry before, now she barely felt like touching her food. Supper finished without anything interesting happening. Imogen helped clear away the dishes. Then it was time for Ethan to go home. Imogen escorted Ethan to the front door, then decided to walk with him to the end of the drive.
"Before you leave Ethan let me fetch a plate for you to take home to your Da," said her mother already bustling into the kitchen. In a few moments she had a plate fixed and put securely into an extra lunch pail.
"Thanks Mrs. Rogers Da will be real happy to get it."
"That's fine you get home now before it gets to dark outside."
"Yes Ma'am," Ethan replied automatically. He and Imogen headed out the door with the pail swinging in his hand.
"You going to tell me what's eating you alive, or are you just gonna keep sulking in silence. Either suits me just fine, but I know one will make you feel better," Ethan said quietly without looking over at her.
"Nothing much you don't already know. I just didn't realize that my family was in on it too. I really wish someone would tell me why everyone is trying so hard to stop me. Everyone just keeps telling me that I'll understand some day, and that it's for my own good. If I hear that again I just might scream," replied Imogen through a pout.
"You really don't know do you?"
"Ethan how long have you known me that you don't know I can be completely oblivious."
"Well let me ask you this. Have you ever met anyone who could use "the art"?"
"No, but I just thought that was because it was so rare," Imogen mused looking over at him.
"Well you're right it is very rare, but not so rare that we've never had someone in this town with it. I think we were both pretty little then, but I was just old enough to remember. There was this girl and she couldn't sing like you can, but she had this ability to draw things and... make things come to life. I remember it was the strangest thing anyone had ever seen. One day her parents sent her to school and she went too, but at the end of the day she didn't come home. A few people said they saw men in suits in town that day. A few even saw them escort her into a jeep, but everyone can agree that no one ever saw her again."
"Why would someone take her? Were they people from the conservatory?" Imogen asked hopefully.
"I doubt it. What's more likely is that some of the oil men got wind of her talents and took her to work for them. They know that without them our little town wouldn't even exist. They know that every single one of us would have nothing so they take what they want from us. My Da helps keep all those jacks running, but we don't own any of it not even the house. When it comes down to it we are just guests of the company. Everyone is afraid that if you do have some kind of gift that they will be able to use you, and that one day you'll disappear too. So please be careful," Ethan finished quietly. For a few moments neither one said anything. When they reached the end of the drive way they both stopped. Imogen couldn't quite look up right away.
"I had no idea... I promise I'll be careful Ethan when there is something to be careful about," Imogen said quietly.
"I was afraid you'd say something like that," Ethan said rolling his eyes, "I see I've had some effect and that's good, but you'll figure it out eventually. I gotta get going though Da will probably be worried about me. Just don't do anything stupid ok," Ethan pleaded giving her his best serious look.
"Ethan you know I don't make promises I can't keep," Imogen said with a smirk.
"I was afraid you'd say that too," huffed Ethan.