Heart Like A Tractor (early Beta Reader page)

The next thing I’m working on is a novella that will be serialized and published in ten installments during 2023-24 in InD’Tale magazine. It’s tentatively titled “Heart Like A Tractor.” On this page, just for my newsletter readers, I’ll be posting the early chapters of the serial novella. Please send me an email to give me feedback on the early draft. Tell me any reactions or thoughts you have, or answer the questions at the bottom of each chapter. If you send me feedback, I’ll enter you in a drawing for a prize to be determined — probably a free download of the next new novel. Thanks in advance for any feedback you can offer. Or, if you just enjoy reading a rough draft.

Note: Please DO NOT DO ANY COPY EDITING. This is a rough draft that will go through ten more revisions and a professional edit. I do not want you to correct punctuation, grammar, word choices, etc. I’m interested in big-picture feedback about how you react to the story and the characters, not whether you think I should have used a semi-colon. Happy reading.

Part 1 – Ghosts

THE FAMILY FARM was the absolute last destination on Penny’s travel wish list. A stray strand of corn-silk colored hair fell across her amber eyes as she stared out the pockmarked window of the Amtrak. A blurred carousel of images passed by without sparking any interest. Farmland, strip malls, neatly organized pods of houses, then more farmland. She already missed the city. Her girlfriends were most likely at Rosie’s pub, having brunch and flirting with the hot waiter. Penny was on the train to Hell. She thought she left the ghosts behind two years ago.

          It had been a shock when the call came. Her father, Gary Thompson, had bypass surgery ten years ago. She never thought about it. He was as strong as a bull, stubborn as a mule, and would never die. Wrong again. If only her brother, Eric, could handle this for her. Penny turned away from the window and extracted a tissue from her clutch. She swore to herself that she wasn’t going to cry. These tears were not for her father.

          Penny’s mother died of cancer when she was sixteen. Eric was fourteen then. Their father, always stoic and distant, took refuge in bottles of Jack Daniels. When she went off to college, Eric was a junior at Westfield high. He said he would be fine alone with dad until graduation. Penny was nearing the end of her sophomore year, enjoying life in the city, when word came that Eric had been killed in a farming accident. One month shy of his escape from the farm. The whole town turned out for the funeral. Such sadness should not befall a single family. That was the last time she had ridden the Amtrak back to the place she once called home. Two years ago. She wasn’t looking forward to her father’s funeral or spending any time in the big farm house – with the ghosts.

Penny exited the train onto the familiar concrete platform. A colorful poster for her old dentist, Dr. Tuttle, featuring a cartoonish roadster shaped like a tooth, made her smile. She couldn’t help herself. She had spent hours in the toy car in the dentist’s waiting room as a girl. Another placard announced the upcoming county fair, featuring smiling faces holding corn dogs on long sticks. Her stomach churned thinking of the grease. Before more old memories could flood her already addled brain, blue and red flashing lights caught her attention.

A black Sherriff’s SUV hugged the curb at the base of the wooden stairs leading from the train platform. Seeing the man in the blue uniform leaning against the front grill sent a tingle up Penny’s spine. She froze, prompting other passengers to brush against her as they veered around the unexpected obstruction. Penny’s gaze was fixed on Chuck Foreman, who was waving. She smiled and waved back, years of memories flooding into her brain, despite her best efforts to block them.

“How’d you know I’d be on this train?” She dropped her Yves St. Laurant overnight bag on the sidewalk.

Chuck looked different. At their senior prom, his hair dangled around his ears and his face was dappled with acne. Now, his square chin was smooth beneath a row of white teeth. He seemed taller, and certainly broader in the chest and shoulders in his crisp uniform. She couldn’t see any hair peeking below his Smokey Bear hat. Clear blue eyes stared at her with the same puppy-dog expression she remembered. They had dated the duration of their junior and senior years. Then he went off to the Army and she left for college in the city. Six years ago. A lifetime.

“You know how it is,” he looked at the ground with the shy smile she remembered being so attracted to as a naive teenager. “Betty Anne’s mom works at the funeral parlor and knows you have an appointment at four-thirty. Word got around to me and this is the last train that would get you here in time. You look amazing.”

Penny knew she looked far from amazing. Two hours on a train. Barely any make-up. Eyes bloodshot. Unwashed hair tied up in a pony tail. Wearing a shapeless t-shirt and her worst pair of jeans. Chuck had to be starved for any girl not dragging a toddler. “Thanks. I’m a mess.”

“Well, you look great to me.” Chuck reached for her bag and tossed it into the back seat, then opened the passenger door for Penny. The simple act of chivalry reminded her that most of the men she met in the city were assholes. On the ride, she asked about Chuck’s parents and his younger sister. Audrey was married and had two kids. His parents were the typical doting grandparents. His father still ran the hardware store and his mom spent most of her time at the Presbyterian Church, where she was the secretary and office manager. Chuck enthusiastically recounted his family’s happiness. He knew not to ask about hers.

          At the funeral parlor, Penny survived the process of approving the arrangements – the framed photo that would be on display next to the casket, the information in the guest book, and a dozen other details she barely comprehended and cared nothing about. She politely declined to view the body. Back outside, Penny inhaled deeply. The warm July air was thick with humidity and memories. Chuck, who had made it his business to be her personal chauffeur for the day, drove her to her childhood home.

          As the big SUV rolled up the long, winding dirt road to the Thompson farmhouse, a chocolate-colored Labrador bounded down the gravel driveway, barking excitedly. Penny’s face lit up. She spilled out of the car before it fully stopped, dropped to one knee, and buried her face in the neck of the old dog, which licked her ear and whined happily. “Duke, oh you good boy!” she chirped, digging a manicured nail into the floppy folds of skin around the dog’s neck.

          “You need any help?” Chuck asked, depositing her designer overnight bag on the dusty ground.

          “No. We’ll be alright,” she said around Duke’s tongue. Their neighbors must have taken care of Duke in the two days since he became the last remaining resident of the farm. She disengaged long enough to thank Chuck for the ride – and his kindness. He held out his arms and she fell into his hug, which lingered, but she didn’t object.

          As the cloud of dust from Chuck’s departure dissipated, Penny turned toward the cornfield. The stalks were thin and far shorter than she knew they should be in July. It had been a hot and dry summer, punctuated by thunderstorms. She shook her head. Why was she thinking about the health of the corn crop. She didn’t care. She didn’t want to be there, but somebody had to settle the estate. She knew the land would revert to the town as part of the open space deal her father made when he decided it was too hard to work the farm for profit. After that, he just grew strawberries in the spring, one field of corn in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall. He sold the pumpkins to the town’s children for pennies. Her mother had reveled in decorating the place for Halloween and designing the corn maze each fall. Before she died. The ghosts were even there in the cornfield.

          Penny finally forced herself into the house through the back door, which was unlocked, like always. The spotless kitchen, looking the same as when she was ten, waited patiently to service the family’s needs. Back then, it was a flurry of activity. Now, it was a silent shell. Duke nuzzled Penny’s leg and started whining. She put out his food, which was quickly inhaled, then fixed herself an omelet in a black cast iron skillet. Eating had slipped her mind. The cheese and eggs in the fridge were still fresh. It was like her father was just away for the weekend.

          She was halfway through her food, while swiping through dozens of condolence messages in her Instagram account, when Duke barked and sat up, staring at the kitchen door. A car ground its way up the driveway, prompting Penny to abandon her plate. She watched Duke circle around Chester Almon, the mayor of Westfield. His father, Duncan, who had been mayor before him, seamlessly passed the executive torch to his son. It was the natural progression of things.

          “I’m so sorry, Penny,” he patted his bloated chest as he spoke. Only a few years older than Penny, he had already settled into his father’s overweight body and thinning hair. The suit he was sweating through also probably belonged to his father.

          “Thank you,” she replied politely. “I just got here today. I haven’t even started trying to organize dad’s papers.”

          “You take your time with that. I’m not in a hurry. Under the terms of the agreement your father signed with the town, you have the option to stay on the farm as long as you want. You also have the option to sell the farm to the town at any time. I can tell you that the price in the contract is far above the current market value. You can take the four hundred and fifty thousand whenever you want it.”

          “That’s the sale price?”

          “That’s what’s in the agreement. But, as I said, you can also choose to stay and work the farm. You take your time and let me know when you make a decision.”

          “Those are my only options? Live here and work the farm, or sell to the town?”

          “That was your father’s deal, yes. But you have much more important things to concentrate on right now. You take care of your father’s affairs and get through the funeral and we’ll talk later. I just wanted to wish you my condolences personally.” He retreated to his BMW without looking back, Duke following behind to ensure the intruder didn’t linger.

          An hour later, tired from staring at bills, bank records, and check registers, Penny took Duke outside for a run. Waves of heat still shimmered above the dusty road. After a few quick ball-fetches, she decided to take refuge in the barn. The huge wooden doors creaked like an old friend as Penny’s nose drew in the musty air, filled with hay, manure, and cow. Penny meandered through the familiar space, stopping at her father’s workbench, with his tools neatly arranged on a pegboard wall. She recalled her father teaching her how to change the oil in the tractor, how to make a hasp, tie knots, and clean and care for the tools. On the pegboard, three hammers of varying sizes hung from hooks. There was a gap where the second-largest of the set of four should have been. It was unlike her father to leave a tool out of its proper place. Maybe he was using it when he had his heart attack. The thought actually made her smile. It’s how he would have wanted to die – holding a hammer.

          Turning away, her eyes landed on a hulking shadow against the far wall. The old tractor. When she was a girl, it was already past its prime, but it had been the iron horse of the working farm. It pulled the big wagon full of giggling children through the “haunted hayride” at Halloween. Now, it was covered with rust and mold. She climbed into the spring-loaded seat, oblivious to the grime rubbing onto her jeans. The key was in its usual hiding spot, but only a weak click greeted its turn. Dead battery. Lifting the engine cover and peering inside, she heard her father’s voice over her shoulder. She was twelve again. Duke, then a puppy, bounded in the hay. “Ya see those brown nubs, stickin’ up there? Those are your spark plugs. Without those, nothin’ runs.”

          Penny shook her head to chase away her father’s spectral voice. Those were the good days. Before her mom got sick. For the first time, she felt the loss of her father like a mule kick. For the next half hour, she worked to put new plugs in the tractor’s engine. There was a fresh box in the plastic bin, second down, two in from the left. Where they belonged. That was the farm she remembered. Everything in its place. It was foolish, putting new plugs in a dilapidated engine that probably wouldn’t ever run again. But, somehow, she needed to do it.

          Wiping engine grease from her hands with a fresh rag from under the workbench, Penny remembered the first time her dad let her drive the tractor by herself. She would get a new battery tomorrow. Somehow, getting it working again was important.

          The sun was hidden behind dark, ominous clouds as Penny emerged from the barn. She felt the wind kick up and smelled the metallic scent of ozone. Storm coming. That night, Penny snuggled in her childhood bed, listening to the rain pelting like buckshot against her window. Duke’s heavy breathing helped her sleep.

          The crunch of tires on gravel woke Penny the next morning. light streamed through the crack between the shade and the top of her window, telling her it was already late morning. Duke barked and bounded through the doggie door that allowed him unimpeded ingress and egress. When Penny finally pushed through the kitchen door, her gut clenched. Chuck Foreman was kneeling by his Sheriff’s SUV, patting Duke. Seeing Penny, he stood up.

          “You don’t have to check up on me,” she said, trying to sound more annoyed than she really was. Chuck’s smiling face was more comforting than she wanted to admit.

          “I’m not checking on you. I’m checking on the fire.” Chuck gestured over his shoulder with his left thumb. Penny held a hand up to shade her eyes and squinted toward the horizon. Thin gray smoke rose up from an unseen source. She suddenly noticed the smell of burning wood. Chuck marched toward the cow pasture. The thunderstorm. It wasn’t unusual for a lightning strike to take down a tree and sometimes start a fire. Penny hurried to catch up.

          At the far side of the field, a creek snaked across the landscape at the bottom of a gully four feet below the rest of the land. Penny and Eric had spent countless hours down those banks, splashing in the clear water and fishing for the small trout that spawned in the culvert on the far side of the county road. Beyond the creek bed, an ancient oak tree lorded over the meadow where the cows grazed. The oak had seen two centuries. On this day it had lost one of its four great limbs, which lay on the grass, smoldering. A nasty black scar slashed up from the ground, along the thick trunk. The tree would survive, but would mourn the loss of an arm.

          The engorged stream rushed through its soft canyon, feeding the night’s rainwater away from the farm. A portion of the bank had collapsed and slid toward the water’s edge. Penny took a step down the bank, but slipped in the mud, embedding a sneaker. “Damn!”

          Chuck quickly reached her, his Sheriff’s boots squishing into the saturated soil. Penny’s foot escaped the mud with a sucking squish, leaving her pink New Balance running shoe behind. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she exclaimed.

          “I got that.” Chuck helpfully reached toward the hole that was quickly filling with water. He extracted the shoe, washed off the mud in the stream, then turned to hand it to Penny, who was sitting on a dark rock. His left arm was half-extended when he stopped and stared at the creek bank to his right.

          “What’s more interesting than me down there in the mud?”

          “That,” Chuck pulled back the sneaker and used it to point. On the side of the bank, where the ground had washed away, there was another sneaker. Brown from being covered in dirt, the rubber sole was visible. An exposed bone extended into the shoe’s heel, then disappeared into the soil.

          Penny’s eyes opened as wide as one of her mother’s China tea saucers. It was a body, and it had been there for a while.

Beta reader questions:

  1. — Is there enough happening here in Part 1 to make you look forward to reading Part 2 in next month’s issue of the magazine?
  2. — What is your reaction to the characters. Penny? Chuck? The Mayor? Do you have any reaction yet, or are you waiting to see what happens? If you have a reaction, what is it?
  3. — Is the tone here right? What do you think you’re going to get with the rest of the story?

If you have any other general feedback or thoughts, please pass them along. Thank you for your views.