Kellyn Roth recently hit 1,000 followers on her blog (congrats, Kellyn!) and in honor of that amazing milestone, she’s hosting a short story contest. Within minutes of reading about the contest I had an inkling of a story idea and, well, here it is! Even if I don’t win first or second place, I’m so glad I entered. Writing Tag-Along was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had as a writer – and I’m not just saying that.
(Oh, and according to this word counter, Tag-Along is 1,896 words long. Just so that y’all – especially Kellyn – know that it meets the requirements for being between 1,000 and 1,999 words long.)
And now for the story!
(If I got anything wrong about the Great Depression, the 1930s in general, and/or Wyoming, I apologize. The contest deadline doesn’t allow for tons of research.)
Wyoming – 1934
When I was nine years old, I was sure that my brother, Tom, was the most ornery human being on God’s green earth. There were only three years between us but once he hit twelve, he acted like we were as many decades apart.
Most of the time he didn’t do anything…and that was the problem. We used to play in the ravine, making mud pies and wading into the water when the summer heat caught us.
But now Tom ignored me most of the time, too busy with his friends.
I stayed clear of him after he called me a tag-along. I was playing House in Pa’s shed and Tom walked past with his friends.
“Is Dorothy around?” Arthur Mitchell asked. I’d been sweet on him for about forever and I placed my hand on the shed’s door, ready to go out and maybe walk beside him when Tom’s reply flattened me.
“Naw. Tag-along’s probably playin’ with her dolls’.”
They laughed, but I was crushed. How dare they all laugh at me? Especially Arthur…
There was a suspicious prickling behind my eyes that threatened tears but I sniffed hard and forced them away. I didn’t want to show up for dinner with red eyes and have Tom ask a bunch of stupid questions.
Besides Tom’s new attitude, the other thing in my thoughts was the singing contest on the 24th. It was a Christmas Eve benefit to help families in our community hit hardest by the Depression.
At that time, I didn’t care about homeless families so much as the prize for the best girl singer at the benefit. The prize was a shiny ring with five – five! – tiny red rubies set around the band.
Looking back on that ring, I know that the gold was some kind of cheap, painted metal and the ‘rubies’ were really just glass. But when I was nine, it held all the allure of the diamond mines in my favorite book – A Little Princess.
There was a special display at the general store that had a poster about the benefit and then all the prizes lined up, waiting for the winners. I’d press my nose against the glass and stare at that ring. Sometimes the sun would catch it just so and set it to shimmering and glittering until I had to look away.
And then Tom would come out.
“Hey, Tag-along, you buyin’ anythin’?”
I turned and glared at him. “You know I don’t have any money,” I snapped.
“Well, you’ve gotta go. Mr. Mitchell doesn’t like it when people loiter.”
I’d roll my eyes. But I always went.
Tom had gotten a job at Mr. Mitchell’s store only a couple months ago and if his head was swelled before, it was nothing compared to how he got now.
At first I’d been excited like Pa and Ma. Now I could go to the store and eat as much penny candy as I wanted! Now I’d get to see Arthur more because Mr. Mitchell was his pa.
But none of those shiny dreams came true. Since I could never afford to be a customer at the store, Tom always shooed me away sooner or later. Said that it didn’t look good to Mr. Mitchell and that he had to keep this job.
He was a pain.
In preparation for the benefit, I sang in our backyard, on the walk to school, and just about everywhere else. It was less than two weeks away.
And I was terrified.
“Now, Dorothy, there’s absolutely nothing to be worried about,” Ma said as she smoothed invisible wrinkles from my dress. “You have a beautiful voice.”
I wished it was true. But Tom had come out in the yard the other day to chop wood when I was singing and I’d asked him how I sounded. I’d waited for words of praise – I thought I sounded really good – but he just shrugged. His eyes looked distant as he threw another piece of kindling into the wood pile, like he was a million miles away, .
I ran into the house, hating Tom. He didn’t care about me! He didn’t care if I lost the contest and that ring went to some other girl.
Now, fifteen minutes away from singing in front of the entire population of Miller’s Crossing, the memory of Tom’s indifference rose up like a ghost to haunt me. It sucked all my courage away.
Ma and I stood backstage, waiting for me to be called. Pa was somewhere in the audience, ‘proud as anything’. I didn’t know where Tom was until he bounded up to Ma and me.
“I had to lock up,” he said to Ma. “When’s Dor’thy goin’ up?”
“After Patty sings.”
He looked over at me. “Ready?”
I nodded. I couldn’t admit that I was shaking.
The three of us stood together, listening to Patty Malone sing ‘Easter Parade’ – pretty much the worst song for a Christmas Eve benefit, I thought. She sang good, though, and I was getting more scared by the second.
I think Tom saw something of my fright because just before they called my name, he ruffled my hair – usually infuriating, but comforting right then – and said, “Here you go. Break a leg, Tag-along!”
I stood there, stock still, as they said, “And now Miss Dorothy Jackson, singing ‘That’s What Life Is Made Of’.”
Mother gave me a gentle push and that was about the only thing that would’ve got me on the stage. But it wasn’t stage fright anymore, it was tears that threatened to spill out of my eyes and forever embarrass me. All because of Tom and his stupid nickname for me. He’d been so nice a minute ago and-and then he’d called me ‘Tag-along’. I hated that name and never more than that moment.
I swallowed hard as the piano tinkled out the opening notes of my song.
Good thing I’d spent every spare minute singing because I don’t remember a single word I pushed out of my aching throat that evening. But the applause was loud. I saw Pa in the crowd as he stood and led everyone else to.
I’d gotten a standing ovation but it didn’t matter. Tom hated me.
I stumbled off the stage and into Ma’s arms. She hugged me tight. “What did I tell you?” she said proudly. “You were wonderful, darling!”
Tom wasn’t around, I saw, as I peeked around her arm. Good thing, too, or I’d probably have shouted him.
“Can we go home?” I asked.
She held me away from her, surprised. “No, we have to wait and see the other acts and then find out who won the prizes.” She smiled. “Don’t you want to know who the winners are?”
The idea of seeing those prizes given out – especially the ring – made my heart sing. I wouldn’t win. If the performer couldn’t remember her own performance, could anyone else be expected to?
But I didn’t want to worry Ma. So I just said, “All right.”
I didn’t win. The prize went to a girl who was here visiting her aunt and uncle. Was that allowed, to enter when you didn’t live here? I didn’t think so but the judges were the ones whose opinions mattered.
On the way home, Pa and Ma and Tom tried to cheer me up by saying that I’d sung very well and, no, of course that girl didn’t qualify and what were the judges thinking? Well, it was mostly Ma talking. Pa didn’t say much anytime and all Tom offered was a smile. I pretended not to see.
I went straight to bed when we got home though Ma offered to let me stay up late and have some cake and listen to the radio. But my stomach churned too much for cake to tempt me.
As soon as I crawled into bed, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I squinted at the clock in the light that came from the hallway. Only about an hour had passed. I could hear the radio playing from downstairs. All my anxiety had left me thirsty, so I crept down the stairs toward the kitchen.
“I only need twenty-five cents, Pa.” That was Tom, in the kitchen. I paused at the closed door.
“That’s fine, son,” Pa’s voice rumbled. “I already told you that the money’s your own.”
“Oh, Pa.” I could hear the eye roll in Tom’s voice. “This is all I’m goin’ ask for, ever. Promise.”
“And I won’t hold you to that promise. But I appreciate it. I know your ma does, too.”
Part of me wanted to push open the kitchen door and see just what they were talking about. But there was something serious about their voices that held me back.
So I returned to my room and fell asleep again. Eavesdropping had made me forget about my thirst and I slept good the whole night.
As soon as I woke up, I remembered that it was Christmas day. I ran to the mantel and tore down my stocking. Tom’s was still hanging there, which puzzled me, because when it came to Christmas he was just as excited as me. He wouldn’t still be sleeping.
After I found the candy, the nickel, and the hair ribbons in my stocking, I asked Ma about Tom.
“He’s out an errand,” she said, a funny smile on her face.
I made a face. “An errand? On Christmas?”
“Eat your breakfast now,” she said, pushing a plate of pancakes in front of me. Pa smiled at me across the table.
I was halfway through the pancakes when the kitchen door opened and shut. Ma left the table and I could hear her and Tom talking in the kitchen. Then he came into the dining room. He still had his boots and coat on and was tracking snow everywhere. I expected Ma to scold him, but she didn’t.
He came and stood by me and dug into his coat pocket.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, handing me a tiny box.
I didn’t breath for a moment. I knew what came in this kind of box.
I got it open and stared. There, nestled on a tiny bed of velvet, sat a gold ring studded with five rubies. “Oh…” I whispered.
“I had to ask Mr. Mitchell to open up the store special so I could get it,” Tom said, the words spilling out of him in a kind of happy breathlessness. “At first he wasn’t too happy, but once I explained, he got the store keys real quick and sold me the ring.”
I looked from the ring on my finger to Tom.
“Thank you, Tom! Thank you so much.” And then I hugged him, even if it did embarrass him for forever.
“Well, you deserved it,” he said. “You should’ve won that prize, Tag-along.”
I was about to get mad again when he grinned and then I could see the mischief in his eyes. But seriousness, too. He really thought that I should have won and he got me this ring because of it and he didn’t mean anything bad by calling me ‘Tag-along’.
Joy welled up in me. I had the ring and, more importantly, I had my brother back.
It was the best Christmas ever.
What did you think??? (And do you like the cover – I made it myself because Canva is awesomeness.) Tag-Along was inspired by To Kill A Mockingbird, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, and Flipped. Mainly the tone of all three, y’know? And I listened to a bunch of fun, upbeat 1930s songs while I wrote it – I hope that translated into the story!
Merry Christmas, everyone. ❤