Y is for Yield

The heavy backpack landed with a thud on the gravel path and Malcolm collapsed beside it, all arms and legs attached at angles only a seventeen-year-old could manage.

“Tough day at school?” Abby asked from where she sat on the circle bench surrounding the pole center of the sundial herb garden.

“The worst.” He bit into the apple he snagged while trudging through the kitchen, his left arm hooked around the gargoyle puppy statue (not alive, mom had checked) that served as an armrest for the sundial bench and marked the noon position. Six was marked by a small cat, three a baby lizard with wings – more wyvern than dragon, and nine by a gargoyle bird, something between a stork and an owl. Abby said they were original to the house and she would know.

A riot of late fall colors, the feral herb garden was located in the back of the house, a low crumbling stone wall delineating the edge of the garden from the rolling hills and swamps of the old plantation. Heavy iron-bound oak doors opened into the garden from the wings of the manor and the house proper, giving quick access to all the manor rooms which might have needed greens at a moment’s notice: greenhouse, which was missing all its glass at the moment, the kitchen, and what used to be the formal dining room.

A red light beside the northern door, a new addition to the manor, indicated one or both of the adults were working and could not be interrupted. Mom and Jonathan had converted the morning room, drawing room, and formal dining room over to their Sparkle Network business, with half of the footage devoted to the blade servers. One of the reasons they picked this old manor was all the undeveloped land that came with it. From where he sat, he could see the construction equipment clearing space for the solar farm. He winced seeing them fell trees, but none were really old. The saplings were too far away for him to hear them scream. It didn’t make it better, but it did make it tolerable.

Until about ten years ago, the previous owners rented the land to a couple local farmers. Only once they retired did the land start cycling to its natural forest habitat. Still, the wood witch in him hated giving an inch back to civilization which had taken so much from the wild, but the Priestess was energy and she needed a lot of it to run her sparkle web.

“What happened?” Abby’s cool hand stroked his brown hair.

He glanced up at her, surprised she manifested enough energy for him to feel her touch. A quick inhale sucked past his teeth, sending him coughing as a bit of apple went down the wrong pipe.

Today Abigail wore her blue outfit, little birds embroidered across the bodice and sleeves, with her bright blue kerchief containing a rich cascade of auburn curls flowing down her back nearly to her waist. Her Irish green eyes sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight as she watched his siblings. She had lived to be only a little older than him and looked amazing, from the smudge of dirt on one cheek to her bare feet.

Her eyes crinkled between concern and laughter at his coughing fit. Finally he managed to squeak out, “Coach Mullin.”

“Again?” she shook her head and sighed.

“Yeah, again.” Malcolm looked away from her to study the herb garden. Mom had given him control of it, and he hoped to start working on it this weekend, except… “I gave up.”

“Gave up?” Abby’s soprano voice always carried a roughness of concern, like she had spent all day cooking in the smoke and talking to children.

“Ugh. Yeah. Up, in, yielded like a yellow belly sapsucker.” Malcolm grunted as he leaned his head back to study the infinite blue sky and Abby’s red-tinted curls. “For a guy who teaches sex ed, you think he would understand the word ‘no’. But no. Today, he hit me with Haskel, the football captain. The one who all the brains in my advance-bio course warned to steer clear of because he bullies, yeah, that one. I mean, I got it better than most smart kids being big and all, but I don’t want to be that guy.”

Abby pushed back one of his hairs the wind had blown on his face. “The one that fights back and wins.”

“Hello yes.” Malcolm groaned again, closing his eyes. “I never should have shown off on the first day. Mom always says don’t show off around the mundanes, around anyone. Let them guess. Hint if you must, but never give away the show. But it was only touch football and I wanted to make friends so bad. It’s my last year before everything hits and, I guess, I wanted a bit of normal.” He opened his gray-green eyes and looked into hers. “Is that too much to ask?”

“I would love to say no, it’s not,” the ancient servant smiled sadly, “but that is not the case, young Master.”

“I’m not a master,” he growled.

“Then you won’t be a High Priest, nor the Speaker for the Trees to the druid council on behalf of the wood witches.” Abby broke eye contact to swing her eyes around the courtyard.

“No one asked me if I wanted to be a High Priest or a Speaker.” Malcolm joined her in monitoring his younger siblings. Ada and Jonny were digging up a triangle of the sundial which had gone to complete weed in the herb garden he had marked off as okay to play in. On the stone path marking out the area had two aster flower crowns laying abandoned; Jonny likely made them, the one from rich red blooms had to be Ada’s, and his was the mix of pink and blue. Barbara toddled around every which way, following the pollinators as they collected the last food of the season.

Abby glanced down. “Do you want to be a High Priest? Or a Speaker at the council?”

Malcolm’s eyes narrowed like his mom’s did, ignoring the blush tinging her cheeks as best he could, then looked away.

“Well, do you?”

Malcolm stood up and threw his apple core at the stone work around the old greenhouse to ricochet it into the start of the compost pile.

“Don’t make me ask you a third time.” A chuckle laced Abby’s statement. She didn’t have the power of the Blood like him and his mom.

His fists clenched and unclenched. His eyes swept the herb garden and the woods and the hills fading into the reddening haze of sunset. “Yes,” escaped as he admitted to himself that the path decided for him since birth was one he actually wanted to walk.

“So, how are you going to do that and play football?” Abby stood up beside him, barely coming up to mid-chest.

Malcolm waved his hand in a negative. “I managed to dodge the football because their big argument for that sport was scholarships and it’s not like I need them. If I go to college after the walkaround, it won’t be one that any football scholarship will matter. But the Coach did also, has been a lot, arguing about school spirit, so I agreed to track, which means I got a lot of running to do.”

“Which you do anyway.”

“Yep, a bit, but not like this.” Malcolm nodded, “I’m going to have to go in early every day, and then there are meets on weekends, plus staying late some days. Mom isn’t going to like it, especially once she pops, but it will make it easier when I go to Dad’s for the holi…”

Abby streaked sideways midword.

He kept forgetting she wasn’t real.

Malcolm looked around to find her at a break in the old stone wall. Holding her dark blue skirts wide to fill the hole, she stood in front of Barbara who fell back on her diaper-fattened butt in protest, a whine rising from the two-year old.

“No, Miss Barby. No.” Abigail said in a firm voice. Looking up, she mouthed “Sorry,” to Malcolm before saying verbally to him, “Would you mind a-coming and picking up Barbara? It’s nearly time to go in anyways.”

He laughed as he strode on the woolly thyme-invaded pathway to where his sister pouted. “You do know she could have gone right through you.”

“I know that, and you know that.” Abby flashed a smile as bright as the sun and Malcolm’s heart flipped for a second, “But as far as she is concerned, people are solid. Let’s not let her in on that particular secret yet. Besides, if it does come to that, I can be very uncomfortable to walk through.”

“aw-BEE please.” Barbara reached her hands up to the ghost, but Malcolm grabbed them and swung her up onto his hip.

“And what would happen if she stumbled past the wall?” Malcolm bounced the girl as they walked toward the house. “Isn’t that your limit?”

“I think,” Abby shrugged, “but with the littles, the house is alive again. I might be able to get a bit further.” She stopped beside the two dirt-covered hooligans determined to dig to China. “Mister Jonathan, could you let Ada know its time to come in to shower before dinner.”

“She still not hearing you?” Malcolm sighed. The five-year-old took after her father, a pure normal.

“Not unless I push it.” Abby smiled as Ada and Jonny brushed each other down. “And I got a translator right here.” She rubbed the seven-year-olds head. “But if I need to, I can make anyone hear me even during daylight hours.”

“Hence why we had electricians all the first week climbing through the house, ripping out the half-completed wiring.”

“Would you rather have had the flippers rip out the foyer’s medallion?” Abby snapped back with a smile.

Malcolm shook his head as he opened the kitchen door for the family. “You’re kidding. That spiral-sun design is amazing. They were going to get rid of it?”

“Replace it with modern marble-like tiles.” She said as she herded the kids past where his mom was putting dinner in the oven. “Something ‘neutral’ they said.”

“Neutral is overrated.” His mom stood, rubbing her large belly on the right side where Emma like the kick the most. Raising her voice, she said, “My love, can you see if you can find our children under all that dirt?”

Malcolm’s stepdad popped his head through the butler’s pantry to see Ada and Jonny covered in more dirt than clothes. “Hey Malcolm,” he nodded at the teenager, before softening his voice and taking the two-year-old from him, “Hey Barby.” The man who stood eye-to-eye with the still growing teenager, asked, “School okay today?”

“Yeah Jon, it was. Oh, oops, my homework is still out there. Be right back.”

By the time he got back, everyone except his mother was gone to their pre-dinner tasks. Malcolm stared at the blocked off staircase to the third-floor servant area, repairs on that dry-rotted nightmare far down on the fix-it list since no one living needed them. Abagail would be resting.

“Abby said you had something to tell me?” Lizzo leaned against a slate counter, one hand on her stomach.

Malcolm rolled his eyes. Abby was okay at keeping secrets, but in the end, she was on the adults’ side in the house. And she wasn’t wrong, he did need to talk to his mom. “Yeah, so Coach Mullin cornered me again today.”

(words 1,935, first published 4/28/2023)

Series: Under Contract
1. N is for Noise (4/16/2023)
2. Q is for Quicken (4/19/2023)
3. Y is for Yield (4/28/2023)
4. Z is for Zzzz (4/30/2023)

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