Grace A. Johnson
featured story: everything by katja labonte
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
Y'ALL. I am well and thoroughly ashamed of myself for never sharing this story! (And the two others I'll be posting soon.) This was one of the many amazing entries into my picture prompt short story contest back in the summer, and even though it didn't place, I still wanted to share this lovely story by Katja Labonte!
everything by katja labonte
JaneEtta sighed as she tugged on her door-handle. This car is falling to pieces. But without Lester…
The door gave way, and she staggered back on her high heels. Catching herself, she threw her pocketbook into the passenger seat and slipped into the car, slamming the door behind her. She closed her eyes and massaged her temples. It was only five o’clock, but she was already drained. Working as a receptionist had never been her plan; but then, neither had a world-wide war.
“Wait for meeee!”
The girlish shriek rang out in the street and JaneEtta rolled her eyes, snatching back her pocketbook as Sandra whipped open the passenger door and popped in.
“It’s so bright out there; I could never walk home in this glare. I’d go stark staring blind!”
Sandra giggled and settled herself in a great rustle. JaneEtta sourly ignored her. She was in no mood to deal with Sandra’s overdone makeup, ridiculous hairstyle, and expensive, daring new outfit. JaneEtta felt a sudden unkind pride in her own sensible skirt-suit and hat. At least she was fairly decent, even if she had allowed herself the weakness of heels.
Ensuring that her skirt was loose and allowed her legs movement, she started the motor and pulled away from the office with a clunky roar.
“They’ll hear us coming blocks away,” Sandra said with another giggle. “You should call this car Rachel Lynde.”
JaneEtta did not respond. The sun’s rays outside and Sandra’s brightness inside mocked her mood. Why couldn’t it be grey and drizzly instead, like in the novels? Why couldn’t Sandra be glum and silent? Sunshine belonged in the past; laughter had no part in the present.
The sun is always shining behind the clouds.
JaneEtta rolled her eyes. Right. ‘You just have to look past the clouds to see it—and pretty soon it shows up again.’ Isn’t that so, Lest?
Too bad her cousin couldn’t hear her sarcastic answers to his gentle rebukes that echoed in her memory.
“Coming to the lecture tonight?”
“No,” JaneEtta retorted brusquely. Sandra knew better than to invited her out after work.
“Oh, Janey, it would do you good,” Sandra protested. “You’re too glum. You’re like a—a Miss Havisham!”
JaneEtta’s eyebrows rose in spite of herself. She hadn’t expected Sandra to even know about Great Expectations, let alone the characters thereof. A mental prick startled her conscience. Once upon a time, she’d considered Miss Havisham ridiculous. Now, she understood the woman. Did that make her… bad?
She quickly smothered the thought.
“You know Miss Havisham, right?” Sandra pressed. “Mona said you were practically the world’s foremost expert on classics. Dickens is a classic, isn’t he? He’s long-winded enough to be…”
JaneEtta almost smirked cynically before she caught herself. As a child, books and daydreams had filled her days. She’d tramped Sherwood with Robin Hood, defended Scotland with Sir William Wallace, sailed the seas with Ishmael, solved mysteries with Sherlock Holmes, explored islands with Robinson Crusoe. She and Jimsy had run all over London together, scaling roofs and clearing buildings at a leap as they hunted down criminals and foiled enemy spies. The adventures they’d shared shone in her memory like a golden coin in a box of brass pennies.
“What ho, m’lady! Art going to His Majesty’s banquet tonight?”
“Aye, good sir. Art thou?”
“Indeed, madam. May I have the honour of attending your most precious self?”
“My grateful thanks, Sir James.”
“And me too, Sir Jimsy?”
“Yes, indeed, Miss Anne. How old art now?”
“I’m nearly eight!”
“A most precocious and avant-garde sister, m’lady.”
“Indeed, sir. She is most deaf to the lessons of our good teacher.”
“I can’t talk like Netta can, Jimsy!”
“Don’t cry, pet, you’ll learn. May I have your arm, Miss Anne? And you, m’lady Jane?”
“Are you Jane Grey who’s going to be beheaded, Netta?”
“No, I’m only simple Lady Jane… ah… Reginald.”
“These are the castle stairs. Watch your steps, m’ladies. This fog is most dastardly…”
“Jimsy, I want a cloak like yours!”
“Art cold, miss? Allow me…”
“We should make more cloaks, Jimsy! Then we’d all have some!”
“Most clever of you, I’m sure, miss.”
“Are we playing Medieval Scotland or are we playing Victorian Britain? That’s my train, Jim; don’t step on it!”
“Sorry, sis—I mean, m’lady. Welcome to the banquet hall. What ho, minstrels! Strike up. Do not fear the gentlemen on the stairs, madams—they are loyal knights dedicated to your service and protection. A letter…? Thank you, Thomas. Ah—His Majesty is unable to attend tonight. We must join him at Guildhall tomorrow.”
“That’s in London, sir!”
“I crave your pardon, m’lady; I am afraid that my geography is somewhat weak. Thomas, bring a parchment; I must write to the King at once!
“Let’s seal it with Granny’s old ring, Jimsy! We’ll be the Scarlet Pimpernel sending orders to Sir Andrew.”
The half-smile that had begun in JaneEtta’s soul faded as tendrils of bitterness wrapped around the slender joyous stem, crushing out its life. The Spanish Flu had no mercy for even healthy, happy twenty-year-old brothers. Life was cruel.
“You know Great Expectations, right?”
Sandra was a human mosquito in persistence and noise, if not in looks.
“Yes,” JaneEtta snapped.
Sandra settled her purse higher up on her lap and was quiet. JaneEtta was perversely pleased.
The cornfields were a mass of gently-waving green and gold. It wasn’t long until harvest, when the world would throb and roar with the machines.
I hate corn.
Her conscience pricked again. Not really. I just hate anything that bothers my personal comfort. She grimaced at the thought.
“How did you come here, Jane?”
“Do I look like I want to talk tight now, Sandra?” JaneEtta burst.
“No, but you look like you need to,” Sandra giggled. “What brought you out here?”
“A train,” JaneEtta said shortly.
“Because I needed money!” JaneEtta’s voice was rising, and she didn’t care.
“Natch,” Sandra retorted airily. “The boss doesn’t pay us enough for that. You came out here running away from something, JaneEtta Danson.”
JaneEtta grimaced. Before her mind’s eye old memories were flashing—memories of a heart-rending funeral; of a night seething in rage and pain; of silent goodbyes drenched by love ones’ reproachful tears; of a fiercely silent train ride across the country, fleeing… fleeing… fleeing… what? Why?
The words stung. She wasn’t a Jonah… or was she? No, she had to think of something else.
An ear-splitting shriek pierced her consciousness as Sandra snatched JaneEtta’s arm and jerked it from the steering wheel. Screaming back, JaneEtta slammed the breaks and glared wildly for whatever she had—or nearly had—hit.
“Looook! Isn’t he handsome?”
JaneEtta groaned and hid her face, collapsing like a jelly removed from its mold. “Sandra Byrd,” she said fiercely, “if you frightened me out of a year’s growth just to drool over a Tommy—”
“Hardly much of a growth, O small and fierce Helena, and greatly to be lamented. But for the sake of clean air, don’t call us Canucks ‘Tommies.’ I’m not particularly fond of ‘blue’ air.”
JaneEtta dropped her hands and gasped.
“Furthermore, I am aware of your former instructions to come back ‘with my shield or on it,’ but unfortunately, the Canadian army’s shields are alarmingly unfit for even my humble size—”
“Lester, Lester!” Miracle of miracles, the car door gave way at the first frantic tug, and JaneEtta tumbled into her cousin’s uniformed arms, as hysterical as is proper for a heroine.
“Hello to you too, coz…” Lester grinned and hugged her briefly, then pushed her back and scrubbed at the mud staining his jacket. “Fences,” he explained apologetically. “They have just as much of a vendetta out here as they did back home.”
“I thought you were in Ontario shipping out!” JaneEtta cried.
“Quote me correctly, honey. My exact words were, ‘I suppose I shall be sent to Ontario or someplace East to ship out.’ As this stolid East is rather as vast a place as our own Wild West, I ended up in la belle province, in the army base not far from this charming French-Canadian town which, by the way, is a preparatory saunter through Germany. Delightful people, though, albeit what they don’t say in German wouldn’t cumber a fly.”
“You and your ridiculous metaphors,” JaneEtta said with fond tolerance, brushing more mud off his jacket.
Lester raised a forefinger to emphasize a pompous speech, backed up for proper effect, tripped over a loose log, staggered wildly, and collapsed onto his back, his glasses sliding neatly down to the edge of his nose. Behind them, Sandra screeched her laugher and rocked to and fro on her high heels.
With a resigned sigh, Lester scrambled to his feet, wiped his hands on his pants, and offered one to Sandra, giving JaneEtta the long-suffering look of a martyr who had been dragged to the stake as the finishing touch to an inauspicious day.
“Lester Ford,” he said, blinking in placid fortitude.
“Sandra Byrd,” JaneEtta introduced them ungraciously, as Sandra seized Lester’s hand and pulled it close.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” Lester murmured, telegraphing an agonized appeal to JaneEtta. She reached out and took his arm, jerking him away from her coworker.
“Would you like a guide through town?” Sandra cooed, ignoring JaneEtta and batting her eyelashes at Lester, her over-red lips pursed in an affected pout.
“No… plans…” Lester stammered, wildly uncomfortable and forgetting every word he ever knew. “Coz…?” He looked helplessly and hopefully at JaneEtta.
“We’ll see you later, Sandra,” JaneEtta said crisply, leading Lester towards her car. Sandra’s attractive pose disappeared in a flash as she shot JaneEtta a venomous glare.
“Where are we going?” JaneEtta asked, as soon as Lester had closed the car door upon them.
“For someone so sure of herself, you sound remarkably lost,” murmured Lester, adjusting his glasses.
JaneEtta rolled her eyes. “I rescued you from a predicament you were too polite to end yourself. Where are you taking me?”
“Does dinner and a lecture sound like sufficient payment?” Lester asked meekly.
“But I told Sandra I wasn’t going.”
“Then I shall have demonstrated my sublime persuasion skills. By the way, that charming friend of yours shall fly away someday,” Lester added in annoyance, accidentally making eye contract with Sandra and setting off another burst of eye-batting.
“I don’t understand why she hasn’t already,” JaneEtta said sarcastically. “I swear her eyelashes get longer every week, and her head is a perfect balloon as far as emptiness goes.”
“And from that Cupid’s bow came the banshee-worthy shriek that would have frightened Napoleon back into his bed and saved Moscow?”
JaneEtta laughed in spite of herself, and Lester grinned proudly. “I understand, however, that she was the means of you getting this triumphal chariot, for which I bow to her with my hand on my heart. Mrs. Morphe told me the story of the Geezer.”
“Give an old boy some respect. He’s toughed out more things than you,” JaneEtta returned severely.
“Not to strengthen the stereotype, fair coz, but your old boy looks like he could use some work,” Lester retorted, wrestling wildly with the motor and knocking his glasses nearly off his face.
“Not to strengthen the stereotype, but I’m hopeless playing Rosie the Riveter,” JaneEtta mumbled.
“Nothing a few knocks with a screwdriver won’t fix,” Lester said, brightening.
“It won’t hurt, anyways,” JaneEtta answered gloomily.
“Cheer up, coz. How do fries and a burger sound as balm to an afflicted mind? Mind you, I recently learned that French fries are not French but Belgian. The usual anglophone misunderstanding, of course…”
The evening was still and golden. Far in the west, the sun still held night at bay. Crickets and frogs sang in harmony, with the wind whistling the tune.
Seated at the outside table, JaneEtta hummed along to the smooth waves of piano and violin floating out from the radio inside the restaurant.
“Remember our first piano lesson?”
JaneEtta rolled her eyes, but a small smile forced its way to her lips. Lester’s earnest but verbose, over-complicated instructions; her own impatient, irritable disposition; and an audience of merry little siblings was not a recipe for success. An old-fashioned squabble had ensued, in which Lester had forgotten both dignity and vocabulary and JaneEtta had recourse to the usual feminine weapon—tears.
“I haven’t played in forever,” she said, taking the last French fry.
“Really, ma’am, you’re ruining my reputation as a teacher,” Lester began, snatching at the fry and breaking off half. JaneEtta snorted.
The piano piece ended, and a waltz began crooning through the air. Lester grinned.
“Still good on your toes?”
“Better than you, soldier.”
“That’s a challenge.”
Before she could protest, they were standing hand in hand, holding each other’s shoulders and swaying gently to the dreamy melody.
“You have gotten remarkably kinder to my toes,” JaneEtta said graciously.
“Poor Aunt Margie’s feet were not sacrificed in vain. How is the dear woman, and all the ‘folks back home’?”
JaneEtta stiffened, which was not conducive to graceful dancing. “Oh, they’re all right,” she answered vaguely. “I don’t hear from them very often, you know. Dreadfully busy.”
“You mean you don’t write to them, do you,” Lester said shrewdly.
JaneEtta frowned and gave up on dancing altogether. She pulled away from Lester and ran petulantly back to her seat. When he came over and sat back down, she turned her back more squarely upon him. The silence was uncomfortable.
“It’s nice out here,” Lester said suddenly, his voice unusually thoughtful. “Hard to think that across the world, murder is happening within these very same surroundings…”
JaneEtta shivered unexpectedly. Perhaps it was cliché, but she had always understood when book characters drank in nature and reflected with amazement on the wickedness of mankind. She’d never expected to experience this herself… but then, what was fiction but pictures of life, after all?
“Who would have thought, when we said goodbye last fall, where we’d meet again?” Lester mused on. “I admit that I was frankly disgusted at being put here and gave the Lord an earful about it at first. Never guessed I’d run into you. Isn’t it a splendid reminder that everything turns out to our good?”
“That’s not the right words,” JaneEtta mumbled, trying to stave off the oncoming exhortation. She had been wishing for him only a little while ago… but that must be merely a coincidence.
“I wasn’t quoting the verse, merely stating a fact. Really, coz, the older I get, the more I see the ‘bad’ things that happened to me aren’t so bad after all, since the Lord turns them into such glorious things.”
“What about Jimsy?” JaneEtta demanded fiercely. “What about Uncle Perry?”
Lester’s lips whitened, but his voice remained steady.
“Father’s death was terrible. But good still came out of it, Netta. It was at his funeral that poor old Jerome was saved… and you know how Father prayed over him.”
“And Jimsy?” JaneEtta cried. “You can’t find any good in Jimsy’s death, Lester Danson!”
“Jimsy’s death kept him safe, JaneEtta,” Lester said sturdily, locking gazes with her. “The Good Lord knew it was best for him to go. The work he had to do here was done, and it was time for him to enter his reward. If he had stayed, it wouldn’t have been good for him. I firmly believe that, Netta. That’s why I can surrender Father and Jimsy and the others who’ve died around me, because I know they are more blessed now than I can possibly imagine; they are happy and peaceful; and this is the best thing that could ever happen to them. I love them enough to want the best for them… and I know the Lord’ll take care of the ones who are left behind—which He has, if you only look for it.”
“Everything cannot turn to our good,” JaneEtta hissed.
“Would you rather believe that than believe that it does?” Lester demanded. “Would you rather live in the hope that whatever hardship you’re in will someday be worth something? Or would you rather just think that the pain is pointless and merely a blind chance that torments you forever?”
A sudden illustration filled JaneEtta’s mind. Two paths littered with stones and pierced with holes, running along a high cliff that bordered a frightening chasm. Over each hung a dark raincloud, making the paths dangerously slick.
But along one path ran a rope, rough but sturdy, to cling to when one’s feet gave way. And peering down this path, one saw the clouds shift a little, giving comforting glimpses of blue skies or bright rainbows.
JaneEtta blinked, and the image faded from her mind. She put a hand to her heart. Did she really want to go down the path without the safety rope, the path where the raincloud had no promise of ending?
“Lester,” she said desperately, “I don’t want to. But I can’t see how anything good has possibly come from all the bad things that have happened to me—the fire, that school, Abbie…”
“Faith doesn’t work by sight, Netta,” Lester said quietly. “You just have to believe that it is so because you trust the One who said it.”
“Just like I believe the rope will hold me even if I can’t see that it will, just because I trust the ones who put it up,” JaneEtta whispered to herself.
“It’s hard,” Lester admitted. “I know it’s hard. But it’s doable… and it’s worth it… and He’s trustworthy, Netta.”
He shrugged eloquently, words failing his earnestness. He could do no more. This choice she must make herself, in her own heart.
“I hope I can, Lest,” she choked through rising tears, feeling that this was indeed a momentous occasion.
Lester was silent for a moment, then he took her hands in his. “Lord,” he whispered, “please open her eyes and her heart.”
JaneEtta bowed her head, echoing his prayer. Please, Lord… show me Your redemption of my pain.
And as Lester wrapped his own arms around her, giving the comfort she’d yearned after for so many weary months, a whisper slipped through her mind.
He already has.
Isn't that such a lovely reminder? If you haven't yet, I highly recommend checking out Kat's blog here, where she shares more beautiful thoughts and updates! Let me know down below what y'all thought of her story!