Fredette's Sister

Part of the nycmidnight.com short story contest. The assignment, write a story on a surprise genre and subject in one week under 2500 words.

Genre: Mystery
Subject: Begging

Title: Fredette's Sister

No one had killed, raped, or Shanghai’d her. Of that much, Fredette could be sure. Men were honest about those things, and too many had witnessed the porcupine-shaped birthmark on the back of her neck—deep purple against her pale skin—as she left town after town to think otherwise.
Despite the sightings, it worried Fredette that every man who tried to recall her face could only remember the face of their dead wives, their mothers, the girls they loved when they were too little to know any different. Fredette did not even have a photograph to reassure himself that these descriptions were false.

Sister where are you going to. Pleese wait.

As Fredette traveled, his suitcase grew lighter. The winter came along the way, and he wore his clothes instead of packing them. He picked up the telegrams he had wired ahead for Hannah, still unclaimed at each office, and used them to fill the empty suitcase. He distrusted its weight and opened it frequently to check to see that the telegrams were still there, the ribbons of curled paper tied at the middle with worn twine.

Rest there and we will travel together. I bought an ass to cart your belongings. I know what they mean to you.
Fredette received just one telegram. It was in Minneapolis, sent by way of Fargo. “Hg” was all that it had read. Fredette kept it in his breast pocket, thinking it might manufacture a dream she wanted him to see.

Stay there Hannah. What who is hg. Pleese reply.

Like others before him, the telegrapher in Fargo did not remember her face but could draw the birthmark from memory, the quills the same color as faded ink.
Fredette bought his second donkey there. The first had turned ornery and rheumy, worn out from hauling his sister’s heavy trunk on the two-wheeled cart. He wired ahead to the next town, the one after that, and the one after that. “What is another word for ‘beg?’” Fredette asked the telegrapher.
“How do you spell that?” Fredette asked, dropping coins on the table.
I pleed of you just write me that you are fine.

He followed her sightings through the Great Plains, grew the first beard of his life, and slept in between two warring buffalo herds. The Indians, upon seeing Fredette—skin, clothes, horse, and ass all the same rusted color—allowed him to stumble through their country in peace.

I am in Dedwood til morning. A man here gave you food and a bed. He has done the same for me.

His sister’s footprints stopped at the Pacific Ocean. Fredette was at the end of the telegraph wire, almost out of money but filled with hope. He had studied the ship ledgers, accounting for every name and alias on the books, from Jimmer Aardsma to Y. Zovlov, and found no hint of Hannah Spalding. Either she was close or she had sprouted feathered wings and flown upwards, finding the place birds live when they leave the earth behind.

I saw a campfire miles away in the dark and it filled my heart to know I was not alone. Know you are not alone Hannah. I am with you always.

But the few souls trudging across the muddy avenues near the ocean did not like to raise their eyes. They did not like to witness the lost, and they did not want to talk to a man like Fredette.

You have disapointed me sister. If you do not wish for me to follow tell me now.

Fredette witnessed a trap-door walkway drop surprised drunks into a wet pit. The hotelier told Fredette that the drunks would be roped together and stuffed into a ship’s cargo hold, fed only water and rice until Shanghai. This had not been Hannah’s fate—Fredette checked the registers, this time finding descriptions instead of names: Male, Jew nose, strong; Female, small breasts, loud; Male, one hand, frightened. Records were kept for everything, Fredette learned, as if waiting for a man like him to scrutinize history.
The hotelier, needing no invitation, read the ledger over Fredette’s shoulder. “Most of them came through here at one time or the other. It is easy to remember when they are described so simply.”
This hotelier, unlike the others, had not seen Hannah. He could not tell Fredette which way she had traveled. “There is someone out past Rattlesnake Mountain,” the hotelier said. “I have heard he has been known to answer questions that cannot be found.”
“I am not interested in Indians or mystics,” Fredette said. “I need facts.”
“If your sister wants to talk to you, he may be able to help you listen.”
“A medium?” Fredette asked, still skeptical.
The hotelier shook his head. “A scientist. I cannot explain any more than that. He may or may not let you in. You have to qualify.”
“What does it mean to qualify?”
The hotelier shrugged his shoulders. “I only listen to conversations, mister, and I have told you all I heard.”

Do you ever dream of your son? Do you remember what you had?

Fredette readied to leave in the morning. He scrubbed his thin shirts with coarse soap, contemplating whether to leave his sister's trunk at the hotel or to cart it with him to the scientist's cabin in the mountains. For the first time since he packed it, Fredette decided to open the trunk—he had resisted until now, worried that the sight of her belongings would depress him.
He popped the latches, jiggered the lid loose, and lifted. Tears immediately welled in Fredette's eyes. The clothes, shoes, and hatboxes were coated in dirt and leaves. Most items were worn through, as if a miniature cyclone had ripped through them in a self-contained dustbowl.
He lifted the trunk with a whimper and found a small hole on the bottom, perhaps caused by a rock outside of Sioux Falls, a stump in Pierre...
Fredette chided himself. If only he had opened the trunk or noticed the damage early on—he could have prevented the destruction that followed.

I must rest for a few days sister. Sickness has rendered me to bed. Pray that I be well and I the same for you.

Fredette found the scientist outside of an A-frame cabin in the mountains, leveling a pine board in between two sawhorses—he looked more like a carpenter than a man who could find Fredette’s sister. “My name is George Fredette and I am searching for a woman named Hannah Spalding.”
The scientist took a nail from his mouth and hammered it into the board. “Why are you looking for her?” he asked.
Fredette thought about Hannah’s doll he secretly coveted when he was a child. He remembered walking with her on a busy street, her fingernails digging into his wrist, slightly telling him which why to turn, like a knee in a horse’s ribs. “She is my sister,” Fredette said.
When he saw that the scientist was expecting a more elaborate answer, Fredette worried that he was about to be turned away. "I have traveled from Chicago, and I will not rest until I see her home." His eyes filled too quickly to wipe away without the scientist noticing.
“I build things,” the scientist said. “As a means of communication. I am not a Christian and I cannot help you if you want to speak to the dead.”
“She is not dead,” Fredette said, suddenly angry. “She has a birthmark that people have seen as evidence.”
“Why is it again you wish to find her?”
“She knows not what she is doing.” Fredette studied the scientist and knew he still was not satisfied. “She always needed looking after.”
“Is she ill?”
“Yes. Yes, ill twice over. So ill she would abandon her child and take the money left from the child's father. She does not know herself.”
“Is her voice affected?”
“She speaks clearly?”
“It is not the sort of illness that affects speech, sir.”
“You know her voice out of a thousand voices?”
"What does her voice have to do with her disappearance?"
"Nothing, Mr. Fredette."
"Then why—"
"Leave now."
Fredette took a step back, as if shot with a small caliber rifle. The scientist shaved a corner off the board and blew it away. Fredette swallowed. "I will not, sir."
The scientist frowned at his woodwork. “Then please refrain from asking questions for which you will not understand the answers.”
Fredette bit the inside of his cheek and clenched his fists.
"Do you know her tone by rote?” the scientist asked. “If another woman spoke, you would know if it was a false voice?"
Fredette thought about the Lord’s Prayer, the shriek at the sight of a wolf spider, the yells of a woman beginning to find herself lost. “Yes,” he said. “A thousand times yes.”
The scientist lifted the board and carried it behind the cabin. Fredette followed, stopping short when he saw the wooden apparatus in the meadow beyond: a colossal bowl, twice the size of a theater stage, constructed from pine boards and nails. Strapped to the wood, metal tubes lined the interior of the bowl like flower petals.
The scientist knocked his board into a gap in the bowl, and turned to face Fredette. "I will need your help to finish this, and then I will return the favor and listen for your sister."

I know you are ashamed and confused. Running away does not cure it.

The scientist gave Fredette bread and cheese. Even though the scientist was a head taller, Fredette felt like a giant in the small cabin, unable to find a smart resting place for his elbows and knees. "Forgive me," Fredette said. "I may not understand the answer, but I still wish to know how you plan to locate my sister."
The scientist chewed for a moment before swallowing. "You are familiar with the telegraph wire?"
Fredette only nodded, the messages in his suitcase heavy in his mind.
“Imagine that you are sending a wire to your sister thirty miles away. Your message is transcribed into code, tapped out, and then rearranged at the other end. She reads the message and then tells the telegrapher her reply. My invention, Mr. Fredette, disseminates her voice into code, sends it to where you are standing thirty miles away—if you are lucky enough to have an apparatus such as the one behind this cabin—and transcribes her exact words into the room. “
"You were correct: I do not understand. Hannah is the smart one."
"Imagine a phonograph. It plays sound from a recording. Now imagine that your sister speaks in that room thirty miles away. I immediately turn her voice into a recording and play it through my phonograph."
"Imagine, Mr. Fredette. No matter where she is, when she speaks it would be as if she is in this room with us. That is why when we do find a voice, you must be able to identify it as hers, otherwise we may be misled."
Fredette only comprehended the word "we," and after so much time traveling alone, decided to put his faith in the scientist.
I remember that you took care of me when father thought I would die from newmoania. You told me to be brave. Do you remember.

The blisters on Fredette's hands felt good and honest. He planed the logs and corded them into neat stacks. The scientist measured and leveled the boards, asking Fredette questions while they worked.
"Is she a soprano or contralto?"
"The one in between."
Fredette nodded.
"Does her pitch rise or fall when she is angry?"
"It falls."
"And when she is happy?"
"I do not know."
"What if she tells you she does not want to be found?"
"I believe—I do believe that was her intent from the beginning."
"Then why pursue her across the continent?"
"Because there is still doubt in my mind, sir."

You have more to contributte to this world than me H. Let the demons take me and free you.

Wires were tangled at the base of the scientist's back wall, like worms emerging from the floorboards.
They had knocked the last plank into place earlier that day, and the scientist had busied himself untangling copper wire for the rest of the afternoon.
Fredette drank burnt coffee and waited.
As darkness fell, the scientist lit the lamp and beckoned Fredette over to the table, clamping one last wire from the wall to a dark mahogany box brimming with metal screws, coils, and gears.
A sound filled the room, like the box stole the outside air and trebled it. Fredette rubbed his ears, disoriented. The scientist detached a wire and fastened it to a bolt on the other end of the box. The room fell silent.
Suddenly, a voice.
Fredette leapt up from the table, frantically searching the shadows for an intruder. The voice continued, garbled, as if underwater. The scientist made another adjustment, and the voice gained focus: an old woman’s words, raspy with age—a muttered prayer for her husband.
The scientist looked to Fredette for affirmation. Fredette, pale, shook his head.

I am frightened that you will grow old and not know the mareacal of your childs smile.

“My calibrations were off,” the scientist explained. “In the morning, I will make an adjustment. Do not worry, Mr. Fredette. We are close.”
Preparing for bed, Fredette emptied his pockets and unfolded the telegram from Fargo. “What do you think ‘hg’ means?” he asked the scientist.
The scientist studied the slip of paper. “H is your sister’s first initial, correct?”
“That does not explain it.”
“No it does not.” The scientist left the cabin and relieved himself. When he returned, his eyes were bright. “Hg is the periodic symbol for mercury,” he said.
The scientist opened a kit and brought out a vial, shaking it under the lamp’s light. He poured a drop from the vial onto a piece of paper, the mercury an otherworldly silver globule on the white surface.
“It is poisonous, is it not?” asked Fredette.
The scientist nodded. “Beautiful though.”
“That does not explain the telegram.”
“No, Mr. Fredette, but what will?”

I do not understand why you left sister. But I will listen to your reasons.

Nightfall again, the trebling of sound, the silence.
Fredette took a deep breath, inhaling the charged air. He knew then that when he heard his sister’s voice, it would not sound as he remembered. It would carry a timbre unknown, a frightening dissonance between what he wished to hear and how the box on the table transcribed her words.
Fredette would close his eyes, his sister’s face finally clear in his mind, and attempt to prolong the moment for as long as he could. He would imagine his heart paused, his blood still, his sister’s voice frozen somewhere in the ether, and then Fredette would breathe again.

You are foregiven H. Love G Fredette.