The Scourge

Please do not think this is about current events. Anna would not want a headline, and do not try to find an allegory. Yes, she is an Iowa farmer’s daughter, but this is not such a tale. Her middle name is ‘Random’. She shaves her head and aspires to a punk, prairie spinsterhood.

From the beginning of the interview, Anna Random Cross repeatedly bit her lip and claimed that everything that happened to her and the minister’s son, Todd, was a result of bad luck. Add a dose of self-blame, a residual habit from a difficult upbringing, the kind where a child struggles to explain weird adult behavior by pointing the finger at herself. There may or may not have been some physical abuse during her home-school years. It depends on the definition. Her most heinous crime, at age six, was opening her father’s birdcages and releasing his prized parakeets into the wide sky.

The social worker sighed and said, “I’ll make more coffee.”

Anna said, “Yes, please.”

“Do you want to file charges?” the social worker asked. The sun flooded his office, a bank of windows facing east, up on the fifth floor of the hospital. A rainbow flag on the far wall glowed brightly.

“Against Todd?”

“Or the others.”

“Why would I want to do that?” Anna said.

“Because you are the victim of a crime.”

“I don’t like seeing myself as the victim of anything,” she said, wrapping herself tightly in the blue hospital gown.

“Point taken, but you know what I mean.”

“I wish I could remember more,” Anna said.

A dark red gloaming. Treetops. Water, the river running high. A distant train whistle. The bonfire. Rocks under her shoulder. Someone laughing. Followed by an odd series of images, almost an hallucination, about her father as a homesick kid, his frequent boozy account of being sent away to military school and calling home every Sunday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Central,, a boy hunched in a wooden phone booth in the basement of a military school dorm, a collect call, and listening on the line as his mother answers and the operator asks if she will accept a collect call from him. And every week a stab of anxious doubt as he imagines that she will say, “No.”

Considering Anna’s grandmother, Gert, was an irascible egg-beater, this was entirely possible.

“Penny for your thoughts,” the social worker said, softly. He lit the two votive candles on his bookcase.

“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” Anna said.


“Yes. Who else would I be talking about?”

“You had a rather faraway look in your eyes.”

“I’ve seen you at the Saturday market, wearing a skirt. Excuse me, but are you a he or a she, by the way?”

 “Whichever you want, honey. Yes, I go to the market every week, rain or shine,” the social worker smiled and nodded.

“So, you must have seen me too,” Anna observed, “I’ve been managing the Random Bluffs Farm stand for seven years.”

“Yes, I’ve bought corn and onions from you.”

“Well, did you think that I looked like someone who could be such a damn fool?” Anna asked.

Rain or shine, the Saturday farmers’ market spread out across the switchyards parking lot, near the grain elevators. It was church to some people, a sacred ritual. Crafts and tattoos and musicians and expensive coffee. It was a multi-cultural event, like when the circus used to come to town. Of course, Random Bluffs Farm, being such a big operation, did not need to run a produce booth. Anna had taken it on as her project, taken it over actually from her grandmother, for publicity and social outreach. She accepted food stamps and WIC vouchers. Lots of people stopped by to say howdy and wave to Gert, who sat knitting in the truck with her thermos. Last week that included the minister’s son, Todd, partially hidden behind a fuzzy beard.

“Hi. What are you doing here?” Anna asked. “Don’t tell me there’s been a death in the family.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I can’t imagine what else would bring you back here, after burning so many bridges.”

“Came home for the reunion. You going?” Todd asked.

“All the way from Chicago for a high school reunion? Something must be wrong,” Anna said. “Clerking for a judge doesn’t agree with you?”

“I see you haven’t changed none.”

“Now, Todd, that’s where you’re mistaken,” Anna said, “I am no longer Miss Prim and Proper. I am no longer a teetotaler even. Despite the bad examples set by my aunts and uncles at the bowling alley, I frequent the bar there on Saturday nights. I have discovered that a couple beers can help put a wicked spin on the ball.”

“You still haven’t told me if you’re going to the reunion,” Todd said.

“I haven’t decided,” Anna said.

A faint half moon appeared in the northern sky. The temperature began to crisp. Todd showed up a few hours later at the lanes, wearing a Riverview High hoodie. A bit of a surprise, not unpleasant. “Hey, Mister Gutterball is in the house,” someone called. He ate a cheeseburger and drank a beer and convinced Anna to drop in on the reunion, their fifteenth, what the hell. He convinced her with fantasized reactions from a variety of classmates at the sight of Anna and Todd walking into the gym together, arm in arm.

“Imagine the Dobson twins doing a double take. And the pom squad dearies. They’re likely to piss their sweatpants.”

“Gert calls them ‘I give up’ pants.”

“You got a pair yet?”

“I’m still a few pounds shy. What about that crew from home room?”

“I don’t think they’re out of prison.”

“Certainly not for good behavior,” Anna said.

“Don’t worry. At the fifth and the tenth reunion, everyone is still trying to impress and show off their new cars. But, by the fifteenth, life has started kicking the shit out of everyone and people are just people again.”

“How can you be so sure?” Anna said, “Maybe we’re the ones still trying to show off.”


The social worker smiled and stood up from his or her desk and walked over to the windows to adjust the blinds. Enshrouding Anna in stripes of sunlight. A train whistle sounded from nearby. Anna reached for the afghan hanging off the back of the chair. She draped it around her shoulders. The social worker gestured with the coffee pot. Anna nodded.  They both cradled mugs of hot coffee in their laps.

“So it goes better than expected, and when the Dobson twins invite you out to the after-party at their fishing camp, you think everything is on the up and up,” the social worker asked. “Was Todd drunk? Was he hitting on you?”

“Yes and no. He was real chummy. A little awkward. I think he was nervous being around the football crowd. There was a boombox and dancing and guns going off. It got real crazy. I must have blacked out. Next thing I know, it’s the cold light of dawn, and I’m waking up woozy and almost naked and freezing, and Todd is beside me, naked too and passed out.”

“And you crawl out to the road and flag down the milk truck, and when you go back to get Todd, he’s gone.”

“Yeah, but here’s the thing,” Anna said, “He was bleeding out his you-know-what. I think we were both drugged and assaulted and then left together to make it look like he did it.”

“You were both the victims. The class valedictorians got what they deserved.”

“And if I try to file charges, everyone around here will say it was just a prank,” Anna muttered.

The social worker snorted and guzzled the coffee and looked like, whoa, might just throw the mug against the wall. He or she stood up again and started pacing, uttering sighs of dismay. He or she paused by the rainbow flag for a few deep, cleansing breaths, trying to dial it back. What a tough job, Anna thought, having to listen to these miserable tales of woe, knowing that nothing can be done.

“Has anyone called my family?” Anna asked, to redirect the topic.

“Yes, but no one answered at the farm. I left a message. Asked them to bring some clean clothes.”

“When was that?”

“Over an hour ago. I told the nurse at the front desk to buzz my office when someone arrived.”

“Can I ask you a personal question” Anna said.

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Do you ever think about leaving town?”

“Where would I go?”

“I don’t know. Des Moines or Davenport.”

“Anymore, it seems that no place is free from the scourge,” the social worker said.

A buzz on the desk and a simultaneous knock at the door. An elderly, bewigged witch pushed it open and entered, without waiting for an invite. Anna’s grandmother, Gert, a ninety-year old in coveralls. Hands on hips, Gert took in the scene. The rainbow flag and the quartz crystals and the candles. She clapped her hands and crooked a bony finger at Anna.

“What kind of trouble have you got yourself in now?”

“I knew it,” Anna said, “I knew you would say that.”

“Well then, let’s get you on back to the house.”

“Not just yet. I’m not ready to go,” Anna said, shaking her head, “Where are my clothes?”

“At the nurses’ station. You may want to keep them unwashed, for evidence,” the social worker said, “if the police get involved.”

Gert clucked and said, “Come on now. I’m sure this, uh, person has better things to do than offer you bad advice.”

“I feel safe here,” Anna said, “Just a little while longer.”

“She’s welcome to stay as long as she wants.”

“We’ve got a safe at home,” Gert said.

“That’s not what I mean,” Anna said.

“You don’t know what you mean. My truck is out front in the No Parking Zone,” Gert said, “I don’t want to have to call your father.”

“One more minute,” Anna said.

Rocks under the small of her back. The taste of dirt in her mouth. Tinny guitar chords. A distant train whistle. Todd’s mumbled attempts at a prayer. The moon. She’d forgotten all about the moon. Hanging up in the treetops, like a piece of silk lingerie ripped from the intimate earth.



Ian Woollen lives and writes in Bloomington, Indiana. His recent short fiction has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Five South, and North Dakota Quarterly. A new novel, Sister City, is out from Coffeetown Press. Ian recommends the Shalom Community Center.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, May 13, 2019 - 23:04