Gestalt Media continued the Short Story Contest in July 2020. Contributors submitted short stories
of 3,000 words or less on the theme Freedom. Then, it
was up to readers to vote on the winning submission.
The winner of $50 is Mackenzie Littledale for her submission entitled Freedom 500. Her story will also appear in the year-end anthology published by Gestalt Media of all short story contest winners.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy this powerful short story by Mackenzie Littledale
A Short Story by Mackenzie Littledale
“I’m glad you’ve set your reservations aside, Mrs. Mooney,” said Ms. Washington, standing with the shy child’s hand in hers.
“Call me Gloria,” said Mrs. Mooney, leaning on her desk and taking an offhand swipe of her jeans.
“You were even harder to convince than the judge.” Ms. Washington shook her head.
“It wasn’t really a choice was it?” said Gloria. “You know I got a call from…” she tilted her head toward the little girl. “The parents. I had to put them in their place. Rude people, conniving and manipulative. I didn’t like them at all.” She eyed the reddish blotches on Ms. Washington’s cheeks, and tapped her boot heels on the wooden floor. She assumed it must be rosacea but was struck that her cheeks were the boldest color in her drab country office. Why put any effort into decorating the least used space on the farm?
The little girl in the pale yellow dress squirmed, wriggled her hand out of Ms. Washington’s and clutched at her leg.
Gloria pulled her mouth taut into a sympathetic smile as she looked at the girl. “Oh, she’s shy. Your name is Shevonne, right?”
The girl nodded, her eyes searching the old carpet, and her ringlet curls bobbing in unison.
“That’s a pretty name,” said Gloria. “Your social worker said you’re six years old. Is that correct?” She couldn’t help but wonder how this child had wound up here. She appeared a healthy weight, though her skin was a little on the ashy side.
Shevonne nodded again, shifting her gaze out the window toward the pasture. “Yeah,” she mumbled.
“You’ll be safe here, Shevonne. I’ll bet you and the animals have a lot more in common than you think.” Gloria returned her attention to Ms. Washington. “Those bruises will go away soon enough,” she whispered. “I still don’t know anything about children, and it’s still such an unorthodox idea. The idea has merit, but I don’t know. I just don’t see why we’re being used as guinea pigs. What if it doesn’t work? Then what?”
“I can’t go against the judge’s orders, Gloria,” said Ms. Washington.
Gloria sighed and looked at Shevonne for a long, hard minute. “Freedom Five-Hundred is a welcome sanctuary. If there’s a place with enough healing to go around, it’s here.”
Ms Washington stroked Shevonne’s hair. “There are five-hundred acres here, Shevonne. That’s plenty enough space for a sweet, young girl like you to find a place where you can feel free. Would you like to see the horses now?”
Shevonne still had hold of Ms. Washington’s ankle-length, floral print skirt. She let her smile peek out, but just as quickly hid it away again.
“It’s okay,” said Ms. Washington. “The folks here want you to be happy. It’s all right to smile, Shevonne.”
Shevonne began trembling and tears made a slow descent from her tawney eyes. “I-I like...c-cats,” she said, lisping through her missing two front teeth.
“That’s right, child. You can say what you like here. No one will hurt you for saying what’s on your mind.” Gloria wondered if she was saying the right thing.
Shevonne’s rigid posture relaxed. Gloria was touched to see such a young child tap into her reserves of fortitude.
“I always wanted a cat,” said Shevonne, almost inaudibly. She buried her face in Ms. Washington’s skirt, and peeked out. She blushed and smiled. “Do you have cats here? I w-want to see the animals.”
“We have plenty,” said Gloria, clapping her hands. Shevonne’s bluish bruises against the tender, golden skin on her arms tore at her heart. “Are you ready to come with me? I promise you’ll be safe.”
Shevonne shook her head, then nodded, and shook it again. “Maybe if Ms. Washington comes, too?”
Gloria glanced at the social worker. Ms. Washington nodded.
“Come along, Shevonne,” said Ms. Washington. “We have a bit of time.”
“So young to be fighting such demons,” murmured Gloria, and she sighed, extending her hand to Shevonne. “It’s awful weather today, so I think the animals will be very happy to have you as a guest.”
“Are you going to stay with me?” Shevonne asked the social worker.
“Yes, I’ll be observing. It’s important that you feel comfortable. We’ll see if you and any of the animals take a shine to each other, and then I’ll design a therapy program around that bond.”
Gloria smiled with half her mouth.
“Can I ask a question, Mrs. Mooney?”
“Sure, Shevonne. What would you like to know?”
“Why is your eye droopy and smile lopsided?”
“Oh, dear,” said Ms. Washington. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate to ask an adult a personal question like that.”
“It’s all right,” said Gloria. “I had a stroke, must be a year gone by, and it made the left side of my face freeze up like a car battery in a Midwestern blizzard. It’s called Bells Palsy, and I have no control over it.” She turned a kind face to the social worker. “We should head out to the stables and have a look at the horses.”
Gloria led the way out of her office and down a short hallway that ended in a door. The pitter patter of rain on the corrugated metal roof was familiar and comforting to her, but the little girl cringed at the noise.
A teenage boy in jeans and a plaid button down shirt was sweeping a stall as they entered the stable.
Shevonne held her nose and kicked at loose strands of hay. “What’s that smell?”
Gloria laughed and tilted her head at the teenager. “That’s just John.”
“Eww, he needs to switch soap.”
“I’m sorry, kiddo. I was just joking. This is how real farms smell. That’s the scent of living creatures. I love it.”
A golden honey-colored horse with a platinum blonde mane whinnied and Shevonne jumped.
“Don’t be afraid of our horses,” said Gloria. “They’re very sweet and like people. It looks like Buttercup is real curious to see you.”
“Buttercup?” asked Shevonne.
“She’s a Palomino mare. The sheriff rescued her and asked if my husband and I would take her and get her patched up. She was malnourished and treated something terrible wherever she’d been before. Makes me angry as hell when people can be so cruel. Took me ages to get her to trust people, but she has the sweetest disposition.”
Shevonne stood at a distance to the Dutch door of Buttercup’s stall, just far enough that she couldn’t touch or be touched. Tilting her head back and gazing up at the Palomino, her mouth fell open. “I didn’t know horses were so big. They’re as big as monsters.”
“Monsters?” said Gloria. “Oh no, not horses. I think you and Buttercup will be good friends.”
Shevonne shook her head and ran to Ms. Washington, dropped to the ground, hugged her knees and started humming and rocking.
“You hear that?” asked Ms. Washington. “Buttercup had a rough life but now she’s safe here. You will be, too.” Turning to Gloria. “Maybe there are smaller animals so she can dip her toes in the water first?”
Buttercup whinnied again and bobbed her head.
“Well sure,” said Gloria with her perplexed gaze squarely focused on the little girl. “But what’s she doing?”
“This is an example of her impulsive behavior. When Shevonne feels threatened, she tries to make herself tiny so she’s not in the way. Her parents made her feel unwanted, so she tries to disappear. The humming and rocking are maladaptive coping mechanisms to self-soothe.”
“Shevonne, honey,” said Gloria. “You don’t disappear from here. You’re welcome and I want to know you’re alright, you hear? Now get on up, okay? Let’s head to the barn and you’ll meet the animals more your own size. You need some friends.” She felt this gamble’s odds of success were stacking up against her. Yet she wasn’t willing to give up hope easily.
Ms. Washington bent over and prodded the child to her feet. “That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Friends? Come little lady, you’re going to get your pretty yellow dress all dirty. Dust yourself off now and let’s go to the barn with Gloria.”
They left the stable under the protection of umbrellas and crossed a gravel and dirt driveway to a barn painted white. “The pigs, donkey, and goats are in this barn. The cows are in the cow barn. The cats, ducks, and geese are everywhere, but mainly they stay here with the pigs and goats.”
“Would you like to feed the animals?” asked Gloria. “I’ve got some nibbles here. You just hold it in your hand and they’ll come right up to you and eat.”
While Shevonne held the nuggets in her hand for the goats, Gloria pulled the social worker aside. “Who could hurt a child, much worse to hurt their own? It’s revolting.”
“Pay attention, Shevonne, it’s normal and beautiful to eat healthy portions of healthy food. Even the animals know,” said Ms. Washington, leaving Gloria puzzled if the social worker was talking in code.
Shevonne smelled the food pellets. “Yuck.” Something caught her eye. “I want to see the cat, please.”
“That grey tiger cat is Mortimer,” said Gloria, as the cat slinked around the outer edge of the barn wall. “He’s not the friendliest cat on the farm. He’s a tough old coot.”
“Can I pet him?” asked Shevonne.
“We have lots of friendlier cats,” said Gloria. “I’m sure you’ll love the others.”
Shevonne took off running toward Mortimer, who arched his back and hissed at her. Shevonne slowed down and reached to pet him. He swatted at her hand. “What happened to you?” she asked. “Your fur is messy and you’ve only got one eye.” She turned to Gloria. “What happened to Mortimer?”
“Mortimer, well, what can I say? He came from a horrible home and he tends to pick fights with animals bigger than himself. He lost an eye years and years ago, so he doesn’t always see where he’s going and gets himself bumped up.”
“Oh, I see,” said Shevonne. “Hello Mortimer. I could be your friend. I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Careful, he bites.”
A truck engine rumbled outside on the gravel and dirt driveway. “I’m not expecting anyone,” said Gloria. “The whole staff is here already, and we have no tours scheduled.”
The women stepped outside the barn. A truck, at least ten years old and worse for wear, parked outside with a driver and one passenger.
“Howdy, can I help you?” asked Gloria.
“Boy, it was hard to find you,” said the man getting out of the driver’s side. “You got some property here, lady.”
“You have no business being here, Mr. Georges,” said Ms. Washington. “You need to get back in your truck and head home.”
“Who is this?” asked Gloria.
"These are Shevonne’s biological parents.”
“So she’s here,” said Mrs. Georges getting out of the truck. “We’re takin’ her home where she belongs. This has all been a big misunderstandin’. That girl made up some far-fetched stories that you made her tell.” She pointed an accusing finger at Ms. Washington. “You forced our little girl to lie on us.”
“Like I said, you two need to move on. You lost your custody and visitation rights. No one coerced answers out of Shevonne,” said Ms. Washington. “Gloria, you may need to call the sheriff.”
“No sheriff ‘round here, but me and my shotgun,” replied Gloria.
John came out of the barn. “Trouble out here, ma’am?” Buttercup could be heard snorting.
Shevonne poked her head out, and Gloria shooed her back in the barn. The girl’s face registered fear and terror, and she ran back inside.
“Come back out here, girl,” called Mr. Georges. “Yer mama and me gonna take yah home now.”
Thunder rumbled across the blackening sky, which Gloria took as a sign that they needed to hurry this up before the rains poured again. The hair on her arms stood on end as static lightning snaked through the clouds.
“You’re not welcome on my property, said Gloria. “I have work to do and when I come back out, you’d better not be here.” She headed back to the barn. “Ms. Washington, I don’t reckon there’s a chance of talking sense to these folk, so come with me.”
Gloria Mooney headed to the barn and retrieved her shotgun from a rack in a horse’s stall. Buttercup had gotten out, but Shevonne was nowhere to be seen. “The child must be hiding.”
She rounded up the animals and led them to their pens. When she passed Buttercup’s stall, she noticed yellow in the corner of her eye and doubled back. Shevonne was curled up in the corner, humming nursery songs to Mortimer, the grumpy cat.
“You stay there,” said Gloria. She headed back out, shotgun still in hand.
Mr. and Mrs. Georges stood in the barn entrance, facing off with John, who was armed with a rifle. “Ya’ll must be hard of hearing. Your chance to clear out of here alive is quickly slipping away from you.”
“You talk pretty tough for a kid,” said Mr. Georges, sneering. “Shevonne! Come on, baby girl, mama and me gonna take you for ice cream if you come nice and easy.”
Spoken like a true predator, thought Gloria.
“The court order is perfectly clear, Mr. Georges,” said Ms. Washington.
“I don’t give a damn about words on paper,” said Mrs. Georges. “Yer holding our child hostage and we’re not leaving without her.”
Buttercup came up behind the couple, rearing up on her hind legs and snorting. Gloria wondered why the horse was so protective of Shevonne, and assumed they must have spent a good amount of time bonding in her stall while she was outside. The animals know good from bad, right from wrong.
“I ain’t skeered of no dumb horse,” said Mr. Georges.
“You call that beast off of us,” said Mrs. Georges, latching onto her husband.
Buttercup continued rearing and snorting, pawing at the ground and pacing behind them.
“That won’t happen unless you turn around and leave,” said John, aiming his rifle at their knees.
“The horse is blocking our way.”
“Excuses, excuses.” John whistled. “Buttercup, come.”
The horse obeyed, and Mr. Georges took a swing at her hind quarters. Buttercup kicked him square in the chest, sending him to the ground, gasping for air. Mr. Georges scrambled to his feet, grabbed his wife by the arm and they hustled out. John and Gloria jogged to the entrance and stood with their weapons aimed until the truck engine tumbled on and the couple left.
“That was tense,” said Ms. Washington.
“Not as tense as wondering what happens to Shevonne. Has she been adopted?”
“She’ll return to her foster family, but she’ll come here for the experimental animal-assisted therapy. It seems we may need another trial run, since she didn’t have a chance to bond with any animals today. Would that be okay?”
“I think she already made a favorable impression on Buttercup, or the horse wouldn’t have defended her like that,” said Gloria. “Come see this.” She led Ms. Washington and John to Buttercup’s stall, where Shevonne still sang nursery songs to Mortimer. Mortimer lay in her lap, scruffy belly up and legs sprawled.
“I can’t say I’ve ever seen this before,” said Gloria.
“How do you feel, Shevonne?” asked Ms. Washington.
“I was scared, but the monster horse is my friend, and Mortimer is my baby. It’s nap time for the baby. I’m hungry.”
“Come,” said Gloria. “I think we’ve all worked up an appetite.”
“Can I eat here with Mortimer?”
“We’re going to bring Buttercup back in. This is where she sleeps. Come to the house for lunch,” said Gloria Mooney, who was toying with the idea of becoming Mommy Gloria Mooney.
Shevonne got up, carefully moving Mortimer from her lap and setting him down on a bale of hay. “I’ll see you later Mortimer. I’ll sing you to sleep again if you want.”
“So, Ms. Washington,” said Gloria, while they made their way with umbrellas back to the house kitchen. “What does it take to officially certify the animals for therapy?”
“We plan to blaze that trail with you and Shevonne.”
“I see. So tell me…” she paused, gathering her thoughts. “What does it take to adopt a child?”
The first animal sanctuary in the world to combine animal rehabilitation with therapy for human patients. Please make a generous donation to Ranch Hand Rescue of Argyle, Texas:
Mackenzie Littledale’s first published article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Conscious Life Journal, which focuses on mindfulness practices. Her microfiction is included in the VSS365 Anthology, which released in paperback on September 23, 2019. The AskWin Podcast interviewed her regarding her novel manuscript for This Darkness is Mine in September. In November 2019, she was selected as a Pitch Wars mentee. Her mentor was Gia deCadenet. Diffusing the Tension blog interviewed Mackenzie in December 2019. A selection of her short stories is posted on Reedsy’s blog. In July 2020, Wendi Blum Weiss interviewed Littledale on her YouTube channel. This Darkness is Mine will be her first novel. Mackenzie blogs about her lack of commitment going vegan, philosophy, new restaurants, random thoughts, mental health, her writing process, snippets from her manuscript, and poetry. She lives in South Florida with her cat. Both love Moscato and avoid the beach.