Life's Challenges


Life’s Challenges


“Hey, Ma. It didn’t work again.”

Kate looked out the kitchen window toward the tool shed. Jamie stood in the doorway wearing his great great grandfather’s World War I gas mask. A doll dangled in his hand by one foot.

“Don’t worry, Hon. You’ll figure it out.” She wiped her hands on a towel and asked, “Would you like some help?”

“Nah, that’s okay. Don’t you remember the last time you tried to help?”

“You’re right, Jamie.” She chuckled at the thought of the poor doll nearly headless. She’d managed to sew it back on good enough for Jamie to continue his project. “I’ll be doing laundry if you need me.”


Kate replayed the tragedy that had left Jamie homeless as she loaded clothes into the washer.

Her sister Caroline’s husband—and his replacement—gone, Caroline had turned to drugs to deal with her mentally challenged son. The morning of the accident had been a particularly difficult one.

Caroline’s 7-year-old daughter, Amy, sat in the back seat on the way to a doctor’s appointment. The crash, the utility pole bent, wires hanging, the explosion. Mother and daughter gone before help could arrive.

Jamie survived because he was staying with Kate. He didn’t behave well in doctors' offices. He’d seen too many in his young life.

Kate took a deep breath and wiped a tear from her eye. She never planned to have children, especially after the age of forty. She loved the ones she taught each day and that satisfied her maternal instincts. Then she inherited Jamie.

She continued teaching until the end of the year but found it difficult to manage both. Kate applied for financial assistance, and between that, her savings, and money she earned tutoring, she and Jamie managed. It helped that the house was paid for.


As she sorted the clothes, she remembered her first few weeks with Jamie. He couldn’t—or didn’t want to—understand what had happened. Kate never told him about the accident. Just that his mom and sis weren’t coming home.

He was calm at first, playing with his soldiers. Then he began to yell and throw things. Being big for fourteen, like his dad, Kate found it difficult to control him physically. Instead, she stood in the doorway until he collapsed in tears, then cradled him in her arms. Eventually, he fell asleep. He remained silent for the next week, sitting in a corner of his bedroom, refusing to come out, and eating little.

One morning, Kate asked Jamie if he’d like to come and check out his great great grandfather’s footlocker filled with souvenirs he’d brought back from the war. “No. I want Amy.”

“There might be some things you can use when you play soldier.”

Jamie’s head popped up. “Like guns?”

“Maybe,” Kate replied, even though she knew any guns and ammo had been disposed of years ago.

He led the way to the attic. She let Jamie open the container. They both sneezed as a combination of dust, mildew, and mold tickled their noses. He reached in and pulled something out.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s a gas mask. They had to wear them sometimes, especially when the enemy sprayed something called mustard gas.”

“Did the gas hurt them?”

“Yes, it did.”

“Do you think it helped some people?”

“Maybe.” She wasn’t used to lying to Jamie, and now she’d done it twice.

Instead of responding, Jamie raced down the stairs and out to the shed, where he stayed the rest of the day working.

Later in the afternoon, she stuck her head in the shed and asked him what he was doing.

“Fixing Amy, ” he replied, his voice filtered through the mask.

“It’s dinner time. You should eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” he said.

“One more hour, and then you eat.” Kate forced a smile onto her face. “You can’t fix Amy if you’re sick from lack of food.”

“Okay,” Jamie said, not looking at her.

One hour later, Kate peeked through the shed’s plastic window and saw Jamie poking and pounding one of Amy’s dolls. He poured soapy water on its lips and then some 3in1 oil Kate kept in the kitchen. After each step, he’d put his hand over where the doll’s heart would be and then hold its nose to his ear. All the time wearing the gas mask.

After dinner, Kate sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and listened to the sounds coming from the shed. Once in a while she’d hear a “damn,” or an expletive that made her cringe. She’d talked to Jamie a few times about using such words but decided they were minor annoyances compared to the other challenges they faced.

Kate didn’t know how long Jamie would keep at his project or what he would be like when he finally gave up. For now, she was happy and relieved he had a purpose in his life.

Jim Harrington

Jim Harrington lives in Huntersville, NC, with his wife and two dogs. His stories have appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Every Day Fiction, The Houston Literary Review, Long Story Short, MicroHorror, Flashshot and others. Jim's Six Questions For . . . blog ( provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at

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