The Broken Cross

By on Feb 12, 2017 in Fiction

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Cross made of pebbles on green lawn


Jacqueline Stiles’ home was on the west side of Lorrence in a new housing development, a fifteen-minute bike ride from our house on Willowyn Terrace. A white-clapboard, black-shuttered ranch, the house’s screened-in breezeway connected the house to a one-car garage. Two houses away, workmen hauled and hammered shingles on roofs of brick-front houses with a stone chimney. The summer wind through the oaks and sycamores along the street sounded like water spilling over rocks.

That first day I checked on Jacqueline Stiles’ house, I parked my bike in front of the breezeway. Nervous about being where my parents did not want me to be and curious about the unknowns I might find inside the house, I unlocked the garage doors, left the lock in the hasp, and swung open both doors. The aroma of oil, grease, and wood was pleasant. Ed Outerbridge’s Ford pick-up sat nose-in on the concrete floor. The truck’s polished red body shone glossy even here in shaded daylight. The power mower waited in the corner behind me, the engine’s housing and the blade’s red metal shield clean as the truck’s panels. Everything in the garage seemed in order, nothing disturbed, and the front and back lawns did not need to be mowed. I closed and locked the doors and entered the house through the breezeway.

I was less afraid but more curious now: to see the rooms and to know Jacqueline Stiles. First, though, the cat—Molly, according to its food dish, and gray with flecks of white around its paws and ears—greeted me in the kitchen. Molly peeped rather than meowed at me, but after I scratched her neck, she nuzzled the bottoms of my jeans and purred and yipped for food. “You a dog or a cat?” I asked her. I poured dry food into her dish, emptied her water dish, added fresh, and set both dishes on the pink plastic mat near the breezeway door.

For two months I had seen Jacqueline Stiles only from a distance: a woman with dark blond hair that fell over her forehead in even bangs, a small face, narrow lips, and straight mouth. Today that distance changed. She was over a hundred miles away, but I felt closer to her now than when I had seen her in and outside of church. I walked through the house. The living room off the kitchen: chairs and sofa creeping over the edge of a beige rug; a lighted lamp in front of the curtained picture window that looked onto the front yard; framed pictures on shelves and lamp tables: the cowgirl-hatted, gleeful daughter riding a pony; mother and daughter together, a birthday cake in front of them , the daughter blowing out candles. Other pictures— grandparents? Cousins? All smiles.

The beige carpeted hallway led from the living room to bedrooms. First, a bathroom on the left. Next, on the right the little girl’s bedroom—pink walls, baby blue rug. Toy chest in front of one wall, white plastic script above the toy chest identified “Jennifer’s Room.” Book-stuffed shelves on another wall. Under the window a single bed with pink coverlet, two pink pillows, and Raggedy Ann and Andy propped against the pillows. A wooden crucifix with a carved wooden Jesus over the bed. Protection? Someone to pray to?

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord…

I had grown away from that prayer a long time ago. I no longer recited prayers before I went to bed. No need to.

Where was the kid’s father? I wondered. “Two daughters, both with absent fathers now,” my mother had said but did not elaborate on where he lived or if he had any contact at all with his daughter.

Diagonally across from Jennifer’s room was her mother’s bedroom. Bed, unrippled, unruffled white coverlet and four pillows—two on each side. The bed looked more like a neat showpiece than a place to “screw around,” as my father had defined Ed Outerbridge’s behavior. He had continued, “He’s hurt a lot of people; friends and family. I know you feel you have to do some work for him, David, but I hope you think about what he’s done. If he asks you to do these things again, well, you’re going to have to make up your own mind.”

Now I stood in the bedroom doorway and stared at the bed. I was conscious of the absence of any noise in the house. Workmen’s voices and hammers down the street seemed like muted thumps on pillows. I was conscious of my fantasy of a man and woman moving together on the bed, moving in a rhythm I had only experienced in dreams. I did not hear the words the man and woman spoke to each other; I heard only their whispered pleasure. Then, for the first time since I had entered the house, I felt like a trespasser; an invader. I walked away from the fantasy. I watched my right hand lock the breezeway, kitchen door behind me. My mouth felt dry, thirsty. I did not go back into the house that day.

The next two days I stopped there only long enough to feed the cat.

Friday, the day before Jacqueline Stiles, her daughter, and Ed Outerbridge returned from their vacation in the Poconos, I waited for showers to pass before I mowed the Stiles lawn. The humid air was like a heavy blanket wrapped around everything, the grass a high thick rug, but I mowed the lawn anyway. The mower’s lunging whir overwhelmed sounds of house construction, my focus intent on avoiding stones and toys hidden in the grass and on finishing early so that Joey Wicklund and I could meet Wayne at Halcyon Lake. The engine’s noise and my concentration were why I did not see Susan Outerbridge park her bicycle beside mine; why I did not see her sitting on the back steps until the front of the blade’s shield nicked the walkway.

I pressed the metal tab to the battery. The mower shut off.

Can I trust you?

Her eyes and half smile expressed that uncertainty. Susan was thinner than when I had last seen her. Her baggy jeans made her look boyish, but her bud-like breasts pointed beneath her lime green polo shirt. Strands of dark blond hair that fell over her eyes looked like long arrows. She hunched her shoulders and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. She sounded apologetic when she said, “I scared you, huh?” and hunched her shoulders again.

“What d’you want?” I was annoyed. I wanted no interference, especially from her. I had chores to finish: rake the cut grass, make the yard look neat, check things inside the house—responsibilities her father had asked me to do and was willing to pay me for.

She shrugged. “I dunno…I just wanted to see if my dad was here,” she said.

“He’s not. Not till tomorrow.” I waited to see if she would say anything else. While she seemed to think about something, I said, “I’ve got to finish the yard,” and released the throttle and yanked the starter cord. The engine caught on the first pull.

Susan was still watching me from the steps when I finished. She swiped at the arrow-like strands in front of her eyes as she watched me clean wet clotted grass beneath the metal shield, brush grass and dust from around the engine base, carry the wet grass and dump it into a tin trash container beside the back steps. She even followed me when I pushed the mower to the garage.

The right-hand door was open. I wheeled the mower into the back corner, handle toward the garage door. I checked the street to see if Joey was in sight: not yet.

“That’s my dad’s truck,” Susan said.    

I did not answer her. I wanted to close the garage door, I wanted her to ride off somewhere, but she stood in my path.

“I’ve ridden in it,” she said, proud of her accomplishment.

“Yeah? Where?”  When I moved toward the door Susan stepped back and stood in front of our bicycles. Hers, painted in red and white stripes, looked like a candy-cane on wheels.

I closed the garage door, but in asking “Where?” I had opened another. Susan needed someone to talk to, someone to listen: a friend. I told myself that I would not be her friend. I would just listen.

“All around town,” she replied. Her voice grew louder as she followed me through the breezeway into the kitchen. “He even let me shift gears. It was neat. We went by the middle school… I’ll be in eighth grade next year… Ooo, there’s that cat! That must be Molly.”

“Watch out, I have to feed her,” I said, giving Susan an order and motioning her away from the food cabinet.

“Can I?”

While Molly waited for one of us to take care of her, Susan stood close to me. If I had wanted to, I could have pushed her away. In fact, part of me wanted to shove her out of my way; another part of me held my temper in check. She smelled of perspiration and soap.

“Fill the water dish,” I ordered Susan, hoping she would stop pestering me.

She didn’t. After she had finished her cat chore, she asked, “What else?”

“Nothing. Just get outta here. I’ve got other things to do.”

“Hey, Harper, you in there?”

I ducked into the breezeway. In front of the garage, Joey Wicklund dismounted from a new, glossy black 3-speed bicycle, a beach towel clamped between the seat’s springs. He looked at my bike, then at Susan’s.

“I’m here,” I called to him. “Gotta couple things to do; then we can go.” I stepped back toward the kitchen doorway.

He peered through the breezeway screen. Crooking his thumb toward our modes of transportation, he said, “You got a little sister I don’t know about? Whose—”

“Tell you later,” I said to Joey.

Susan stepped forward and said to me, “I wanna see the rest of the house.”

I imagined a revelation: “I saw where Dad lives,” Susan would tell her mother. “I saw where you live, she would tell her father. I would be blamed for allowing Susan to be in a house where she was not invited.

And Joey Wicklund would ask me more than twenty questions.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Why?” She put her hands on her hips.

“You can’t. It’s not right. Come on, Susan. Get outta here.”

“It is so right. I’m allowed to be here. My father lives here.”

Joey appeared in the kitchen doorway. “I heard voices,” he said, his face in mock surprise.

Susan paid no attention to him. “But that’s what my mom said about Dad leaving her and me to live with his girlfriend. It’s not right.” She nodded toward the rooms behind me and said, “I wanna see where they live.”

“You’re crazy, Susan!” I said.

She did not move. She did not say anything.

“Go back to your stupid choir,” I said. I immediately regretted it but did not apologize. 

Susan held me in her eyes as long as it took Molly to lap some water, and then she stomped past Joey and through the breezeway to her bicycle. She pushed the striped candy cane on wheels to the street, swung on and pedaled away.

“What the hell was she doin’ here?” Joey asked.

“She’s crazy,” I said.


The Wednesday following Labor Day, I began my sophomore year at Lorrence High School. Susan Outerbridge began eighth grade at Lorrence’s Memorial School. The academic substance of my life included five college prep courses, JV football practice five afternoons a week, and a slim social life. When Susan Outerbridge intruded like a mosquito into my thoughts, I slapped her away.

Socially, Joey and Wayne and I had little interest in dating and parties. The girls of our daydreams flirted with and invited boys more aggressive than we were to parties, the parties’ fallout rumors the stuff of hallway gossip. Within our high school population, Joey, Wayne, and I were not ‘in.’ We were ‘out,’ but we shrugged off our lowly status. We saw in the hallways who had been “bombed out” Saturday night, who would probably drop out before the school year ended, and who someday might come to trial. We did not want to be “one of the leftovers,” as Joey put it. On Saturday nights Joey, Wayne, and I hung out at Stringers Lanes. We bowled three strings, fed pinball machines, and swapped plans for college and names of girls who might accompany us to Stringers, if we roused the courage to ask them.

“I got one for you, Harper,” Joey said, puffing a cigarette one Saturday night between strings. The sound of bowling balls tumbled from Stringers’ low ceiling and polished hardwood alleys; tenpin racks slid and clicked like metal springs. Joey smiled, raised his eyebrows as he blew smoke from the corner of his mouth. “Little Susie Outerbridge,” he said.

“Forget it,” I replied.

“Susie’s not so little anymore, if you know what I mean,” said Wayne Kennemer. He sipped root beer from a paper container, finger-combed his wavy red hair, and made a double-snap sound with his tongue. Whisker stubble pocked his chin.

“Outerbridge marry that Stiles woman yet?” asked Joey.

“No,” I said. “Hepplewhite won’t marry them. Church rules.”

Joey showed us an exaggerated grimace and wiggled his hands like a wild preacher. “They living in sin?”

“That’s about it,” I said.

“They should try another church. One’s as good as another,” Wayne said. “Hell, go to Vegas. Get married in five minutes in Vegas, my old man says. Play the slots, cash in chips, walk up the aisle. Easy. Ceremony’s just a formality anyway… Harper, you’re up.”


Like a late summer storm, the Stiles-Outerbridge scandal had become a distant rumble in Lorrence; a subject murmured by Holy Trinity congregants whenever they saw Betty and Susan walk to the parish hall Sunday mornings.

“Hello, David, boys,” Betty Outerbridge greeted us. Susan said nothing. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk.

The congregation did not see Ed with Jacqueline and her daughter in church. They stopped coming. Some members, including my parents, saw them together at the Acme supermarket or at one of the local restaurants.

One late afternoon on my way home from JV practice—Willard Wilson’s house and widow’s walk watching over me—I heard a muffler’s whu-whu-whu.  A red pick-up—Ed Outerbridge behind the wheel—slowed down and chugged along the curb. He was alone.

Steering left-handed, he leaned across the front seat and cranked down the passenger window with his right. “Hey David!” he called over the sound of the engine. “How’s it going? How’s the team?”

“Pretty good,” I replied.

I kept walking. The truck jerked ahead, paused—lurched, paused parallel to me.

“What’s your record?” he asked.

“Three and two.”

“Not bad…respectable. You getting any game time?”

“A little,” I said and left it at that, embarrassed that I had hugged the bench more than I had dug in my cleats between the lines.

“When’s your next game? Maybe I’ll stop over and catch some action.”

“Friday. We’re away.” Questions tumbled through my head: Should I stop and talk with him or just keep walking? What would I say if he offered me a ride home? What would I answer if he asked me to do more yard chores for him? I did not want him to think that I was avoiding him. I did not want him angry with me. I liked him. To me, Ed was still a friend.

But I remembered my mother’s observation about two daughters with absent fathers, and my father’s Sunday School theme: a friend doesn’t take advantage of another friend.

I kept walking.

“Well, maybe some other time,” Ed said. He gunned the engine and shifted into first. “Gotta get going. Tell your mom and dad and I said hello. Haven’t seen ’em around much. Guess they’re pretty busy. See you later.”

I debated whether or not I should give my parents Ed’s message. I decided I would. What would be wrong with that? When I did tell them during dinner, they did not seem disturbed or angry. My mother nodded and without looking at me asked, “He didn’t ask you to do any more work for him, did he?”

“No. I wouldn’t have said yes, anyway,” I replied, stating the decision I had come to after the red pick-up had pulled away.

“Why not?” my father asked, his question not a challenge, simply a question.

“I just don’t want to,” I said, without explaining that I had felt like a trespasser inside Jaqueline Stiles’ house last summer; that I did not want to encounter Susan there again, take the brunt of her stories and questions. I felt guilty for yelling at her that she was “crazy” and should “go back to your stupid choir.” I was embarrassed and ashamed when she did not say “Hi, David,” as she and Betty passed my friends and me on the stone cross. While I believed that Ed had done me no harm, my mother and father’s distance from him pressured me that I should do the same.

I felt guilty, as if I had betrayed a friend.

And I felt sorry for him. His divorce from Betty final, his request to marry Jacqueline Stiles in Holy Trinity church formally denied, Ed had formally resigned from the vestry and, according to my father, informally resigned from playing poker with him “and the guys.” He did not bring Susan to church anymore. I was curious to know how often he saw her, but I did not ask.

The next evening after dinner, I overheard my parents talk about monthly child support Ed was required to pay. My father was opening mail at the living room desk, my mother on the sofa and thumbing through a magazine.

“Are you still friends with him?” I asked them.

They exchanged looks, then my father said, “Not close friends, David. Not close.”

“Count me out,” my mother said without looking up from the pages.

“Does he have any friends now?” I asked.

“I suppose,” my father answered.

My mother flipped the magazine to the floor and reached beside her for the evening paper.

“Why’d he do it?” I asked.

She held the newspaper in her lap. She nodded to my father.

He nodded back in assent. “What I’m going to tell you doesn’t go anywhere out of this house, do you understand?” he said to me. “Anywhere. There’s already been enough harm done.”

He explained that Betty Outerbridge could never have children of her own. It just wasn’t to be. So, they had adopted Susan. They’d loved her and thought of her as their very own child, “and she is now. She is their very own. They’ve never told Susan she was adopted; only family and close friends know the truth. That’s one reason why I said this doesn’t go out of this house.”

My father had talked with Ed shortly after Ed and Betty had separated. “I asked him the very same question you just asked,” my father said directly to me. “‘It just didn’t work out,’ he said at first. I asked him why. ‘Every time I look at Susan, I know she’s not my own. I can’t put my arms around her any more. I just can’t do it… the marriage, everything. I’m tired of it all… all the pretending… pretending to be a loving husband, too. I don’t have it any more,’ he said.”

“He’s a fool,” my mother said. “A coward and a fool.” She tossed the newspaper to the floor.

“Maybe so,” my father said, “but I’m just explaining what Ed told me, and that’s how it is. He wants to make a new life for himself with Jacqueline and her daughter.”

“The daughter, too, huh? Is he going to treat her the same way he treated Susan? Betty and Susan are better off without him.”

“I know, but it’s still hard for Susan,” my father said.

“Someday she’ll see her father for what he is: a selfish fool,” my mother said. “And I’m being polite.”

I said nothing to them about Ed Outerbridge’s compliments and kindness to me. I kept that to myself, as I did with Joey and Wayne the knowledge that Susan had been adopted. When Betty and Susan walked by the stone cross on Sunday mornings, their coat collars turned up to shield their necks against the fall cold, Betty said, “Hello, boys…Hello, David.”

My friends and I politely reciprocated.

When Susan looked at me, I nodded to her and saw questions and hurt in her expression. I wondered if she understood the apology in my gesture.

Joey Wicklund—shoulders hunched, hands deep in his trousers’ pockets—elbowed me and asked, “What was that all about?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Susie likes you, Harper,” said Wayne. He grinned, sniffed, and then leaned close to me and whispered, “She loves you.”

“Shut up,” I told him.

“I’ll pray for both of you,” he said.



Sunday after Thanksgiving I awoke to the ticks of sleet and snow against my window and the snap and click of tire chains on the street. Maybe church will be canceled, I hoped. That hope was lost when my mother knocked on my bedroom door and reminded me that services were never canceled. “Dad’s shoveling the sidewalk. You can help him. Come on, get up.”

She was right. Morning Prayer and Sunday School were not canceled; neither was 11 a.m. Holy Communion, at which I was crucifer.

The first person in the Senior Choir procession behind me was Susan Outerbridge. I could not pick out her voice among the men and women of the choir. When the choir dispersed in front of the altar railing and took their places in the stalls, Susan sat beside her mother at the organ. I took my usual seat in the stall next to Betty. During the service, Susan turned sheet music pages for Betty. When they recited The Lord’s Prayer, they spoke in soft monotones.

I followed the choir to the railing for Holy Communion. As it happened, Susan knelt beside me, and Betty next to Susan. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Susan bow her head and then fold her hands on the railing. Her lips moved in silence. I looked away.  I felt like an intruder, watching someone pray.

I did not pray. I waited. Father Hepplewhite placed the white wafers in the open hands of the choir members to my right. I opened my hands.

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,” he recited,  “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.” He placed a single wafer in the palm of my hand.

I looked at it and waited. I wanted something special to happen after I brought the wafer to my mouth. Last summer Father Hepplewhite, patting his hand on his shirt pocket, had explained that God was in our hearts. My mother practically pleaded with me to believe in something I could not see. At the Communion railing now, I wanted to feel something, a powerful and reverent sign that Father Hepplewhite, my mother and father and other people had apparently experienced but that I had missed. What was that sign?

Nothing happened. The wafer tasted like dry paper. I thought of the M&M slogan “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands,” and hoped again that God, if He read my thoughts, at least had a sense of humor.

Ed Outerbridge had a sense of humor, I thought. He would have appreciated ‘Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” Where was he now, and what was he doing? Shoveling snow? Probably what I’d have to do this afternoon before Joey and Wayne and I studied at Joey’s house for a test on Acts I, II, and III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

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John T. Hitchner was raised in Pitman, New Jersey, graduated from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and from Dartmouth College. He has also studied at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. He presently teaches Creative Writing and Coming of Age in War and Peace at Keene State College, in Keene, New Hampshire. His poetry has been published in several journals, including the Anthology of New England Writers, the Aurorean, Clark Street Review, Tar Wolf Review, Paper Street, and Poet’s Ink. His chapbook, Not Far From Here, was recently published by Scars Publications. His short fiction has appeared in First Class, Lunch Hour Stories, Ginosko, and most recently in Timber Creek Review.