A layer of early morning fog hung a few feet above the ground as Jake lifted the latch on the gate and swung it open. As the small flock of sheep filed out of their enclosure he used his staff carved from an oak branch to tap their back ends to hurry them along. When the last sheep cleared the gate, Jake closed it and lowered the latch. His border collie, Jenny, who had been sitting obediently outside the enclosure awaiting the commands, sprang to her feet when Jake said, “Hill ho.” Jenny began barking as she chased after the flock, urging them across the field. The bells tied around their necks tinkled musically in the quietude. Jake followed, stepping lightly as the heavy dew in the lush grass seeped through the large hole in the sole of his right shoe.
By habit, Jenny led the flock through the open gate to the field where the sheep would spend the day grazing. Jake came up to the gate where Jenny sat waiting for him. He patted her head and closed the gate. He set his staff aside and leaned against the wood rails of the fence. He lifted his foot and gazed unhappily at the hole and grass-stained wet sock. He put his fingers in the hole and without meaning to he created a rip in the deteriorating leather from the tip of his foot to the heel.
“What’ll I do now?” he said to Jenny.
The dog’s ears perked up and it wagged its tail. Seeing the sunlight breaking through the overcast sky, Jake removed his shoe and tucked it into his belt. He pointed at the sheep who had wandered to the far end of the enclosed field. “Hill ho,” he said to Jenny. She dashed under the fence and headed for the sheep as Jake grabbed his staff and started across the field back to his house.
When he entered the warm kitchen through the back door he was met with the pleasant yeasty aroma of home baked bread. His mother was stirring oatmeal mixed with apple pieces in a pan on the stove using a large wooden spoon. The bubbles on the top of the boiling mixture made popping sounds as they burst. A loaf of bread on a cutting board and butter were in the middle of the table. A bowl and spoon were placed where Jake sat.
“The sheep been put out to pasture?” she asked, sweeping back from her forehead a strand of hair. She had her hair loosely pulled back and wound in a bun on the back of her head, held there by bobby pins and a faded red ribbon.
“Of course, Ma,” he said. “I got a problem.”
She turned off the burner and lifted the pan. “Sit down and have your breakfast,” she said.
He put the staff by the door, straddled a chair, and sat down. “Did you hear me, Ma? I said I got a problem.”
She ladled large spoonfuls of oatmeal into his bowl. “What kind of problem could a boy your age have?” she asked.
He pulled his shoe from his belt and showed her its sole. “Do you think you can fix it?”
She put the spoon in the pan and gazed at his shoe. “That’s beyond repair. Wear your pa’s shoes to school today. He won’t be needin’ ‘em.”
Jake put a spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth and garbled, “My feet are too big for Pa’s shoes. I can’t even get my foot in one of them.”
She placed the pan back on the stove. “I don’t know what to tell you, then. With your pa bein’ laid up in bed you know we can’t afford to buy you a new pair right now.” She sat down at the table and sliced the loaf of bread. “Go to school without shoes.”
“Ma!” Jake exclaimed, spitting out a bit of oatmeal. “I gotta wear shoes to school.”
“Why?” she asked. She took a slice of the bread and lathered butter on it. “When I was a girl we went to school without any shoes lots of times.” She slid the bread across the table to him.
“That ain’t done anymore, Ma. Everyone wears shoes nowdays,” he said. “It’s embarrassing enough not having shoes like the other kids have.” He picked up the bread, put it to his nose, inhaled the scents of the bread and melted butter, and then bit into it.
“You’ll have to make do somehow,” Ma said. “I got your Pa to worry about.”
Jake put a spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth, chewed quietly, swallowed, and then said, “I’ll work it out.”
She brushed bread crumbs from the table. “Make sure to say good morning to your pa before you head off to school,” she said.
“Yes, Ma.” He placed the shoe on the floor and slipped his foot into it. He then lifted his foot and groaned when the sole of the shoe gave way.
The hinges on his parents’ bedroom door squeaked as Jake pushed it open slightly and peeked in. His pa was propped up in bed and had a hunting magazine spread open on his lap. His wire rim glasses rested on the middle of his nose. The room smelled of camphor and rubbing alcohol. Hazy morning light shone through the window, casting a gauzy glow on Pa.
“How you feelin’, Pa?” Jake asked, tentatively sticking his head in.
Pa looked up from the magazine. “Twice my age and just as useless,” he said. “You managin’ the chores okay?”
Jake stepped into the room. “Yeah, Pa. I’m just glad it ain’t lambing season. Ma’s takin’ care of the chickens as she always did.”
Pa closed the magazine and removed his glasses. “If somethin’ were to happen to me you’d have to take care of your ma.”
Jake shoved his hands into his pockets. “Ain’t nothin’ goin’ to happen to you, Pa. Ma wouldn’t allow it.” He shifted his weight onto his shoeless foot.
Pa glanced down at Jake’s feet. “Where’s your shoe?”
“The bottom of it rotted out,” Jake answered. “Ma says we don’t have the money to buy me a new pair. Is that right, Pa?”
Pa coughed, spitting up a small amount of blood. He wiped it from his mouth with a blood-stained handkerchief. “Right now we’re livin’ off what your ma is makin’ sellin’ eggs. See if you can get by with the shoes you have until after lambing season.”
“Yes, Pa,” Jake said. “But I wish I had a new pair of shoes now.”
Pa spit out a spot of blood on the handkerchief. “Save your wishes for big things, son.”
Jake made it to the end of the rocky driveway with both shoes on before he stopped. He leaned against the mailbox and removed his left shoe and took out the piece of cardboard he had hoped would serve as a temporary sole. The cardboard was dirty and torn and sticking out of the hole. He then took off his right shoe and tied the two shoes together by their shoestrings and hung the shoes over his right shoulder. He removed his socks, wadded them, and stuffed them into his back pocket. The time he had spent trying to fashion a sole for his shoe had already assured he would most likely be late for school. Holding onto his shoes, he ran down the dirt road as fast as he could. He reached the school just as Mrs. Blake, the principal, was about to close the front doors.
Frowning at him, she looked at her watch and then said, “You’re a minute late.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Blake, but my pa is still sick so I had some extra chores to do.”
She looked at his shoes and then down at his dirty feet. “You can’t come into the school without shoes on.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. He sat down on the stoop, brushed off his feet, and put on his socks. Keeping the condition of his left shoe hidden from her view, he put it on, and then put on his right shoe. He then entered the building, sliding his left foot on the floor to keep the cardboard from falling out. Mrs. Blake closed the doors and went into the school office.
The school had six classrooms, three on each side of a long hallway. Lockers lined the walls. Jake shuffled down the hallway, headed toward his classroom at the end of the hall. Just before he was ready to enter his twelfth grade classroom the cardboard fell out of his shoe. He picked it up and cussed under his breath as it fell apart in his hand. He knew that Mr. Lopez, his teacher, wouldn’t tolerate the classroom distraction of him being both late and the scraping of his shoe on the floor. He leaned against a locker to try to fix his shoe, felt the locker door shake, and realized it was unlocked. He turned around. It was Toby Harken’s locker, the only boy in school as tall as he was, and someone he had never liked or got along with. Quietly he opened the locker and peered in. Toby’s new gym shoes that Toby only wore during physical education classes sat on the top shelf. Quickly, he took off his shoes, tossed them into his locker, and put on Toby’s shoes.
Mr. Lopez glared at him as he walked into the classroom.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Mr. Lopez,” Jake said with a disarming smile. He went to his seat and sat down. His feet hadn’t felt as good in a pair of shoes in a very long time.
After lunch, when Jake walked out of the lunchroom, Mrs. Blake, Mr. Lopez, and Toby, were standing in the hallway waiting for him. Their eyes immediately went down to the shoes that he was wearing.
“See, I told you, he stole my shoes,” Toby said.
The principal and teacher crossed their arms simultaneously as they glowered at him.
“I’ve known you since you were in kindergarten, Jake, and you’ve never stolen anything before,” Mrs. Blake said. “Do you have an explanation for this?”
Jake’s face reddened. He looked down at his feet – at Toby’s shoes – and felt his voice box constrict. “No, I don’t,” he stammered.
Mrs. Blake tapped her foot. “Take them off, get your things and go home. You’re suspended from school for the next three days. I’ll have to call your parents about this.”
Jake fought back the urge to cry, something he hadn’t done since he was a little boy. “Yes, ma’am.”
Stalling for time, Jake slowly walked down the road with his shoes slung over his shoulder. The hum of grasshoppers filled the air. The few vehicles that passed him left dust clouds in their wake. When he reached home he walked the length of the driveway with his head down, not seeing the ambulance parked in front of the house until he heard a voice coming from its radio dispatch. He looked up, dropped his shoes, and ran into the house. Two paramedics were wheeling a gurney carrying his pa through the living room. An oxygen mask was on Pa’s ashen gray face. Ma was walking alongside the gurney, holding Pa’s hand.
The phone in the kitchen was ringing.
Jake closed and latched the sheep enclosure, turned and headed toward the house with Jenny at his side. The setting sun cast a pale red glow on the landscape. It had been two weeks since Pa died. From morning to night Jake had worn the shoes his ma had bought him at a thrift store for the funeral service. He stopped in the driveway and glanced at the small mound created by his shoes left there the day his father had been taken to the hospital. He walked to the dirt-covered shoes and poked at them with his staff as Jenny sniffed and dug at the mound. He sat down cross legged, set his staff aside, and dug his shoes out with his hands. As he poked his hand through the hole in his old shoes he noticed for the first time something in the sole of his new shoes, the beginning of a hole.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 330 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960.