Okay, for those of you who are coming in late to this saga, this post contains a short story I wrote as a result of being the dead last loser in a four way bet with some other writers. I was given the title by Catherine Ryan Hyde (who you may know from a little story she wrote called Pay It Forward). I say “gave” but what I really mean is afflicted. Uncle Mo’s Gastrointestinal Tract? Yikes. Every idea I had related to that was, quite frankly, really kind of gross. The final story is fairly tame (and be glad, people, seriously…I originally had something much yuckier) and strangely enough came out as something middle grade-ish. Which really is odd for me. Most of my short stories come out on the adult side. Okay, not like adult adult, but generally not for kids. At all. So this one is a surprise all the way around.
It also contains a tiny homage to Graham Greene and my favorite short story of all time. See if you can spot it.
Honestly, I’m not a great short story writer. Sometimes they come out well, but I’m more often to leave them begun and unfinished. I’ve had a few published, but I don’t write them that often. I obviously couldn’t do that here. I had to finish it. My reputation (er, okay, not exactly, but you know what I mean) was at stake.
So here it is. I will offer no more excuses up. Just—–sorry. Really.
Oh, and be sure to check out Catherine’s story and Andrew Smith’s as well. Brian Farrey only has to look on and laugh. Darn him.
(Side note: I’ve now read the other two stories…both very lovely. How was it I was the only one who didn’t swear a lot and wrote it for younger readers?)
You can also download this short story in multiple formats at Smashwords. Please feel free to comment — if the response is good and people like this, maybe I’ll put up some additional short stories…
Uncle Mo’s Gastrointestinal Tract
Allie hated it when Uncle Mo came to visit. It wasn’t so much Uncle Mo himself, though he was a giant and slightly repugnant slug of a man with a bald head and creepily non-existent eyebrows. No, it was what happened to her family and their shabby house when their rich uncle came to visit.
The preparations would start as soon as her mother got the call that Uncle Mo was gracing them with his presence, ostensibly to check up on them and see how they were doing. He was her father’s only living relative and, since her father’s death a year ago in that freak accident with the pig, possibly their last hope. Andrew Strand had left behind a frazzled but genteel wife with no marketable skills, two very stupid dogs, three slightly stupid boys, four average to above-average girls, and over five figures worth of cold hard debt. The fortune he had started out with had been dribbled and drabbled away over the years until the only reminder of it was the imposing but gently decaying family house.
Allie was exactly the middle child in a family spaced evenly in two-year increments, the only thing that it could be said her father had planned with any success. Gloria was sixteen, astonishingly average, and pretty in such a way as to marry an accountant someday. She had already picked out the names of her 2.3 children. Ryan, the oldest boy, was sporty and determined to break every bone in his body at least once, preferably in the pursuit of a home run. He was followed by twelve-year old Rose, who was as simple as she was beautiful and did not seem to understand what she was doing grouped in amongst the rest of the Strand family.
Allie, at ten, was the only one who had any clue at all as to what was going on and the one to which her poor mother turned most frequently for help. She was followed by Hyde, who at eight, had just started his love affair with all things mechanical. Chloe was the unobjectionable one and at six, had managed to not yet form any type of personality at all. But it was Brian, the youngest, who was the troublemaker.
The last time Uncle Mo had visited, Brian had accidentally torched Uncle Mo’s expensive leather shoes, though no one had been able to figure out how he had gotten any matches, seeing as how he was on the short side, even for a four year old and the matches were kept on top of the tallest cupboard in the kitchen. The time before that no one even talked about. Hyde still walked with a bit of a limp and shied well away from pianos.
As soon as her mother had put down the letter announcing Uncle Mo’s impending arrival (penned in his spidery hand and on paper so thick as to be like parchment), Allie had known what her task would be. Her job would be to keep Brian out of trouble.
The other girls set to work cleaning the house from top to bottom while Mrs. Strand worried and fussed over picking out a suitable menu for the day. Uncle Mo’s girth was considerable, as was his appetite, but both were dwarfed by the list of things he was allergic to. Peanuts were cause for a quick trip to the hospital. Shrimp turned his normally pasty white skin into a mottled red and strawberries caused hives so ridiculously large that he had once been photographed for a medical journal. Anything with any level of spice could not be contemplated. Just the mere mention of Indian curry was enough to turn Uncle Mo green.
The boys were in charge of pruning the neglected and overgrown front yard into submission. Allie found Brian purposefully heading for a rose bush with a pair of pruning shears as long as his leg.
“Brian!” she yelled, grabbing them up. “What are you doing?”
“Helping,” he said. He never actually meant to cause trouble. Things just tended to happen. He had only lit Uncle Mo’s shoes on fire because he’d thought they could use a shine, and what was shinier than a bright, cheerful fire?
“Well,” said Allie, “I want to have a talk with you, okay?”
“Okay,” said Brian. He smiled up at her in that trusting way that only a little boy can. He took her offered hand and they went to sit on the porch steps. Allie noticed absentmindedly that the paint was peeling again.
“Now Brian, you know Uncle Mo is coming to visit.”
“And that it’s very important that we’re all very nice to Uncle Mo.”
“I’m always nice,” said Brian.
That was true. Allie had often wondered if the house would survive if he decided one day he wasn’t going to be nice anymore. “Yes, sweetie,” she said. “But we have to be extra special nice to Uncle Mo.”
Allie had seen a letter from the bank sitting out on her mother’s desk. If what she had managed to read upside down was true, being nice to Uncle Mo might be the only thing keeping them from the poor house, if there even was such a thing outside of books.
“That means no fire,” said Allie. She looked sternly at Brian. He blinked back at her, his impossibly large blue eyes looking as innocent as a baby bunny hopping across a grassy meadow, giving no hint of the wolf on the other side of the hill. “No noise, no screaming, no loud laughing, no jumping, no cleaning anything for him, no tricks.” He continued to blink at her, slowly, nodding almost imperceptibly after each item on her list. “No dancing, no climbing, no sharp objects of any kind—”
“Not even toothpicks?” he asked.
“No, not even toothpicks.” Allie couldn’t imagine what he would want with toothpicks. Actually, she really didn’t want to imagine. “We just all have to be really, really nice to Uncle Mo.”
“Or else we’re in trouble,” said Brian. He was, after all, the smartest of the boys.
“Yes,” Allie said. “Or we’re in trouble. Big trouble.”
Big trouble was something Brian did know about. He nodded again and shook his sister’s hand for good measure.
The day of Uncle Mo’s visit dawned drizzly and grey. All seven of the Strand children were neatly pressed and starched in their best Sunday going to church clothes. Allie’s dress itched terribly and her stockings, a hand-me-down that had survived both Gloria and Rose (and a rather unfortunate catapult experiment of Hyde’s), kept puddling around her ankles.
“He’s coming, he’s coming!” called Mrs. Strand, peering out the front window. She too was dressed in her best, a faded green velvet dress that had belonged to Uncle Mo’s late wife, a woman approximately four sizes larger than herself. Even though she had pinned it strategically, she still looked like a little girl playing dress up or, perhaps, a woman attempting to hide large mushrooms about her person. It was just as well that Uncle Mo had never had any children or else the Strand children would likely have been afflicted with their passed down clothes as well.
“He’s got someone with him! A lady!” shrieked Gloria.
The Strands lined themselves up from oldest to youngest as their mother opened the door for Uncle Mo and his mystery guest. Brian came running down the hall at the last minute to join them. “I’m being very good,” he whispered to Allie as he passed her. “Uncle Mo is going to have a wonderful visit. Everyone is going to be so happy!”
Allie did not have time to worry about what Brian might mean. Uncle Mo was squeezing through the door.
Even though his suits were opulent almost to the point of being ridiculous, he had an air of mothballs about him and the smell of him hit the children first. The lady that accompanied him was quite a few years his junior, but with a pinched look about her face that made her look years older. She too was dressed quite smartly, in the latest fashion of the day and her hat was adorned with not one but three peacock feathers.
“My dear sister-in-law,” said Uncle Mo, taking Mrs. Strand’s hand. “So pleased to see you again. So pleased indeed.”
Mrs. Strand put on her best smile. “So wonderful to see you, Morris! It’s always such a pleasure!”
“I hope it isn’t too much bother,” he said, “but I’ve brought my fiancé, Ms. Millicent Fitzwilliam Markham, with me today.”
That was news to everyone. Uncle Mo’s letter had made no mention of a fiancé. Mrs. Strand recovered first and offered her hand to Ms. Markham, as well as a smile.
“Charmed,” said Ms. Markham, in the type of nasally voice you would expect from one of Cinderella’s step-sisters.
Uncle Mo continued down the line. Gloria smiled bravely and shook his hand first as the eldest child. He passed down the line, patting each one on the head in turn and shelling out small, slightly melted chocolates from his waistcoat pocket. Ms. Markham did likewise, minus the chocolates.
“Shall we go to the parlor?” asked Mrs. Strand. “We’ve got a treat for you today, Uncle Mo. I do hope we’ve made enough.” That was as close as she would get to proffering any criticism whatsoever of their unexpected guest, and rather farther than she had meant to go. She blushed.
“Wonderful, wonderful,” said Uncle Mo, not noticing the small slight. He had a tendency to repeat things, making any conversation with him take twice as long as it should.
They all traipsed into the usually unused front room. Allie had to admit that it sparkled and shone. There was not a trace of dust and even all the pillows had been plumped up nicely. They looked almost respectable, if threadbare.
Ms. Markham, however, quite obviously turned up her nose. She settled herself with a sniff upon the coach next to Uncle Mo, though not quite touching him.
“We’ve prepared some tea,” said Mrs. Strand. She nodded at Gloria, who went into the kitchen to bring back a tray stacked with miniature sandwiches, tiny little tea cakes, and a teapot swirling out tendrils of rose-scented steam. Brian and the younger girls had added smiley faces to the tops of all the little petit fours and they looked exceptionally cheerful.
Ryan took another tray from the top of the piano and passed out plates and cups, the dainty but mismatched china looking exceptionally delicate in his too-large growing boy hands. Allie held her breath every time they rattled.
“Lovely, lovely!” Uncle Mo was practically chortling in pleasure, his broad face split in a smile. Ms. Markham contained her glee.
Rose poured tea for everyone and Allie picked up the platter of sandwiches to walk them around the room, stopping first at Uncle Mo. So far, everything was going fairly well. He selected one of each kind, and two of the one that looked like Benedictine. They were his especial favorite, having lived for some time in the South. Allie liked them herself, even though she normally avoided anything green. She skipped taking a sandwich for herself in case Uncle Mo wanted another helping.
Uncle Mo asked each of the children in turn about their current interests and hobbies. He nodded in all the right places and periodically interjected encouraging comments as he worked his way down the line. He chewed thoughtfully on his little plate of sandwiches in-between his remarks and moved on to the teacakes when the last bite had been ground into submission. Ms. Markham smiled thinly when anyone looked her way, but otherwise spent her time taking tiny bites of the single sandwich she had selected.
Mrs. Strand smiled bravely as each child finished their recitation and quietly wrung her hands when she thought no one was looking. She was unsure what Uncle Mo’s fiancé meant to her family. As it was, she didn’t like to talk about money and, in fact, her tongue often tripped over the word, but her husband’s death had left her no choice. Talking about something so base with Uncle Mo was something she had to work herself up to. She nipped out to the kitchen for a quick shot of liquid courage and that was where Allie found her when she went to refill the teapot.
“Are you feeling well, Mom?”
“Fine, fine,” said Mrs. Strand, unconsciously channeling Uncle Mo. “Everything’s going swimmingly, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said Allie. “Very well.” She had being sitting next to Brian the whole time in order to keep an eye on him, but he had done nothing more dangerous than drip a spot of tea on his shirt. The smile plastered on his face looked real enough, albeit too constant.
“Funny,” said Mrs. Strand. She was looking in the sink, where she had hidden the last minute mess of preparation.
“What?” asked Allie.
“There’s some dirt and leaves in the sink. Can’t think why that would be there.”
“Maybe the boys?” asked Allie. She peered into the sink. They looked like leaves from one of the pepper plants in the garden. It definitely could have been one of the boys. They always were getting dirty. Hyde, in particular, seemed to attract dirt like a magnet and he had a sincere fondness for peppers. It had probably been him. He ate them raw all the time.
“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Strand. She hid her husband’s old flask over the icebox and put her arm around Allie’s shoulders. “Let’s go back in,” she said. “Just another hour or so to get through.”
The parlor was deathly quiet when they returned. Gloria was busy looking at nothing at all. Ryan was gnawing on his knuckles, his face nearly purple with the effort to suppress himself. Rose was staring at the carpet, her hands crossed demurely on her lap and only the faintest of blushes giving away her heightened emotions. Hyde was caught half on and half off his chair, like he had changed his mind mid-flight and had not moved for fear of someone noticing. Chloe was chewing complacently on a teacake with cow-like intensity. Brian was blinking. Slowly. But he was still smiling.
Allie put the teapot on the table and sat next to him. She looked around the room, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Uncle Mo had stopped eating, which was obviously a difference, but he also was sitting quite still, as if afraid to move. Ms. Markham was staring fixedly at a tear in the wallpaper. Two spots of color had appeared on her pasty face.
Mrs. Strand laughed uneasily, unsure what had happened but going cheerfully ahead with the game plan. “Would anyone like some more tea?” she asked. “Fresh pot!”
The noise started as a gurgle and then moved into something that sounded like a diseased cat caught in a washing machine, burbling out the last of its life. Then it stopped.
Allie caught her breath.
Mrs. Strand paled. Her hand, halfway to the teapot, hovered in the air like an undecided butterfly and then fluttered to her mouth. No one else moved.
Then the noise started again. This time it sounded like bubbles being blown through thick mud. Allie watched as Uncle Mo looked in some horror at his stomach, which had noticeably expanded in size in the last few minutes. The heavy gold buttons of his tweedy waistcoat trembled.
“Perhaps some tea…?” Mrs. Strand said, with only the tiniest hint of desperation. She motioned to Gloria, who looked at her mother as if another head had suddenly appeared from inside the lumpy green dress, but got up anyway to dutifully pour some more tea into Uncle Mo’s teacup. He held it perched on his knee, a porcine but dainty pinkie finger cocked slightly out. His watched the tea as it poured into the cup and gulped it down, still steaming.
The noise of bubbling mud quieted. Allie breathed again, one quick breath in, the timing of which she was only able to appreciate years later. Then Uncle Mo exploded.
A sound that Allie could only describe as something like a foghorn or perhaps a very ill cow issued forth from the nether end of Uncle Mo and a stench like nothing any of them had ever smelled before began to fill the room. Rose, sitting closest to Uncle Mo and on the most unfortunate side of him to boot, fainted. In slow motion, she slid down the couch and onto the floor.
The two spots on Ms. Markham’s face grew and merged until her entire countenance was bright red. She matched her fiancé in this, who looked most desperate.
Uncle Mo wasn’t the kind of uncle one might run to for hugs or even the kind you’d think of if kite flying were the order of the day. But he was the only hope for their continuing to live in their home.
Allie stood up. “Excuse me!” she said loudly, not looking at Uncle Mo. “I must have eaten something that didn’t agree with me. I do so apologize.”
Everyone looked at her, disbelief written large. She ran to the big picture window and threw it open, giving them some relief from the gassy stench.
Another gurgle from Uncle Mo.
“Pardon,” said Allie. “I am so sorry.” She ran to her older sister, who was still lying on the floor out cold, no one else having moved. Allie propped her up and tried to wrap her arms around her. “Don’t mind Rose,” she said in the general direction of Ms. Markham. “She’s very delicate. Does this all the time.” She huffed and managed to drag Rose a few inches. Ryan finally came to his senses and sprang up to help her. Brian followed, grabbing one of Rose’s feet.
Something burbled inside Uncle Mo. Hyde, having caught on to Allie’s plan, began coughing spasmodically in an effort to cover it up.
Allie and Ryan unceremoniously dumped Rose in one of the kitchen chairs and draped her over the table. Rose actually was a bit of a fainter, so Allie hadn’t really lied.
Allie and Ryan looked at each other and then they both turned to Brian. “What,” said Allie, “did you do?”
“Nothing,” said Brian. “You said we should make sure Uncle Mo was happy. I put smiley faces on everything. Everybody likes smiley faces.”
“The ones on the cakes?” Had he put something extra in the frosting? She couldn’t see how he had, not when he’d had help from his sisters.
“And the sandwiches too. I wanted everything to be happy.”
“What kind of smiley faces?” asked Allie.
“Oh, well, I used raisins and olives for the eyes and peppers from the garden for the smiles.” Brian smiled up at her. “They made perfect smiley faces.”
“We’d better get back in there,” said Allie. There was nothing for it. Uncle Mo’s gastrointestinal tract had been attacked by peppers. She should have stuck to Brian like glue. It was all her fault.
Hyde was almost purple from fake coughing, but even his histrionics weren’t quite enough to cover the continued sounds of gastric distress. Allie and Ryan looked at each other. Then Ryan closed his eyes and concentrated. He let out a burp so loud that it reverberated around the room. Hyde stopped coughing in surprise.
“Excuse me,” said Ryan. “I’m so embarrassed. Allie and I must have eaten the same thing.” Contrary to his words, he actually looked rather pleased, as well he might. Later he would tell his baseball teammates all about it and his nickname would be changed from Slugger to The Burp.
“Uncle Mo,” said Allie, “I’d love to show you the things we’ve done in the back garden lately. It might be a bit muddy though, so I’m not sure if Ms. Markham would like to accompany us or not.” She had to split them up long enough for Uncle Mo’s stomach to calm down. She shot her mother a look and thankfully, Mrs. Strand came out of her stupor.
“Ms. Markham!” she said so loudly that she caused the lady in question to jump and rattle her teacup. “I would so love to give you a tour of the house. Did you know that Morris grew up in this house?” She popped up and took Ms. Markham’s elbow as the lady admitted that no, she had not known that.
Allie took Uncle Mo’s hand and led him to the kitchen. “Uncle Mo…are you all right?” The answer to that was obvious, but she didn’t know what else to say.
“No.” His voice was a strangled whisper.
Allie threw open the cupboard and pulled out some honey and ginger tea. She poured some hot water from the extra teakettle into a cup and dumped the tea in as well as a heaping spoonful of honey. Uncle Mo’s tummy rumbled and soon the stench was upon them.
Allie opened the back door and dragged Uncle Mo outdoors. She handed him the teacup and took in a deep breath of clean fresh air.
He stared at the cup as if he didn’t trust it. Of course, she could hardly blame him. “Drink it, Uncle Mo,” she said. “It’s just honey and ginger. It will help. I found out Brian made smiley faces in all the sandwiches with chili peppers for the smiles.”
“Ah,” said Uncle Mo. He drank the tea down in one gulp and then let out a burp to rival Ryan’s.
Allie took another deep breath and then ran inside long enough to get the jar of honey and a spoon. She handed it to Uncle Mo. He took it without a word and ate spoonfuls of honey until there was a sticky ring around his mouth and the honey jar was empty.
“Thank you,” said Uncle Mo. “I won’t forget this.” He straightened his shoulders like a man preparing to do battle.
“I don’t think any of us will,” said Allie truthfully.
That turned out to be not entirely true. Ms. Markham was able to remove it sufficiently from her mind to go through with her nuptial agreement. Uncle Mo, however, did remember and kept his promise in the form of a monthly allowance.
The Strand family’s wedding present to the happy couple included a year’s supply of honey and a goodly supply of ginger tea, as well as a babysitter for Brian the night of the happy occasion. It was money well spent.