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put the rags to use

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The Vangelis family was poor. Jonny knew it as sure as the sun came up in the morning. They always had been, and his father was damn well making sure they always would be. Jonny was tough, though. He could handle the hand-me-down clothes from his older (and much larger) cousins, he could make do without the finery and frivolity so coveted by his peers.

What he couldn't stand was his mother. More specifically, the way she worked her fingers to the bone each and every day, giving everything she had just to keep food on their table. The meager income she brought in with her sewing was barely enough to keep their family afloat. Sometimes she would make a few extra pennies, hide them away for a rainy day; without fail his father sniffed them out and gambled them away. It was a sisyphean task, and Jonny's heart ached to think of the life she could - should - have had.

She never threw anything away. Waste not, want not, and all that. It was a survival instinct, and a trait that Jonny would see again; in another world-weary woman with too much on her shoulders. This story isn't about the other woman, though her shadow looms over it.

All this is to say that Jonny's mother, who he called Mama and who was known in town as Dolly (never Mrs. Vangelis, for reasons everyone knew but did not discuss), kept beside her sewing a machine a large basket of fabric scraps, and a smaller box of not-quite-empty spools of thread. Jonny had asked her about these one day when he was young. She had told him about patches, and bandages, and all the useful things you can do with a scrap of fabric. And then she told him about taking all of the scraps that were too small to be of any use of their own, laying them out into one of the patterns in the book her grandmother had given her, and sewing them up into something beautiful and new called a quilt. She told young Jonny that someday she would make a quilt just for him, in all his favorite colors, and it would keep him warm on winter nights for as long as he would live.

It seemed like "someday" got farther away every year. There was always just one more job to do, one more hole to mend. Jonny needed new clothes for school, and Billy had made another wager he couldn't pay, and the townsfolk meant well but Dolly was too proud or too tired to do anything but undercharge and overpromise. By the time he was twelve, the thought of anything as warm or beautiful as a quilt was the furthest thing from Jonny's mind.

When he was sixteen, he snuck into the county fair with some kids he called his friends. They weren’t gonna pay for admission, let alone any of the rides or games, but there was still plenty for a gaggle of bored young boys to see and do. They took turns taking drags off a stolen cigar as they meandered through the barns, poking their fingers in the chicken pens and offering handfuls of weeds to the huge steers. They were just discussing the best way to break into the pigpens when they heard the barn doors open and a gruff voice call out. Jonny had heard that tone one too many times; he ducked his head and ran, and was well clear of the barns before he thought to look back for his compatriots.

Rather unsurprisingly, they were nowhere in sight. Jonny found himself alone on the crowded midway. He wandered aimlessly for a few minutes before he noticed a large man that appeared to be following him. Not wanting to take chances, he ducked into the nearest building, which turned out to be the barn where the arts and crafts projects were being displayed. Inside was dark, and few people mingled amongst the rows of shelves. A quick glance behind him reassured Jonny that he had not been followed, and he allowed himself to relax ever-so-slightly as he browsed the handmade goods variously adorned with 1st place, 2nd place, and participation ribbons.

As he paused to admire a crocheted duck (apparently the best in show), he caught the sound of conversation between two older women behind him and froze, straining to listen.

"Isn't this just lovely? I could never, not with my arthritis the way it is. And the grandchildren would ruin it in a heartbeat!"

"You can say that again. Look at the colors, though. I'd pay a lot of money for something like this."

When the conversation faded to the tune of unsteady footsteps, Jonny peered around the corner too see what the women were talking about. His jaw dropped at the sight that greeted him. It was an enormous blanket; depicted on it was the flag of New Texas waving over a grassy green field. As he approached it became clear that the blanket was made of hundreds of smaller scraps of fabric sewn together. To either side of it were more, not as large or intricate, but composed of similar pleasingly geometric designs.

So these must be quilts. Jonny's mind went instantly to the ever-growing pile of scrap fabric sitting beside his mama's sewing machine and the woman's comment about money. It didn't look that difficult, all told, and it was certainly safer than going to work the hypercattle drives. Maybe there was something to this whole business.

That very night Jonny found himself locked in his room, staring down a basket full of pilfered fabric. From his mama's sewing box he had acquired needle, thread, and a pair of scissors. He knew how to patch his jeans, surely assembling an entire quilt from scratch couldn't be that much harder.

Several hours after that, Jonny was regretting every life choice he had ever made. His floor was covered in fabric, his fingertips were aching from all the times he had stabbed himself with the needle, and he was barely any closer to having a quilt than he was when he started.

Suddenly, he heard footsteps outside his door and scrambled to hide the evidence of his endeavors. He had barely managed to shove the fabric under his sagging bed when the door opened to reveal his mama's tired face. She took one look at the mess and Jonny's expression, and closed the door again. Jonny figured that was as good a sign as any to call it a night. He finished tidying up and tried to get some sleep.

The next morning found him up and out of the house early in the morning, trying to solicit a job baling hay for one of the neighboring ranchers. It was late in the season, though, and most of the jobs were already claimed. Jonny returned home that night exhausted and despondent, two feelings he was, by now, very accustomed to.

Both of his parents were mercifully asleep, and Jonny was fully prepared to follow suit. At the last second before falling into bed he noticed there was something sitting on his pillow. It was a book, faded and rough around the edges. A quick flip through it revealed it to be full of quilting patterns and techniques. Weird, certainly, but nothing that couldn't wait until morning. Jonny moved the book to his already-crowded nightstand and collapsed into bed, asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Jonny bolted awake to the sight of sunlight against his far wall, scrambling out of bed with a shit I'm late before taking a moment to realize that today was, in fact, Sunday, and there was no work to be had whether he was awake to get it or not. He fell back into bed with a sigh, and his gaze fell on the book on his nightstand. Well, he had some time to kill. Might as well give it another shot.

Turns out, quilting is much easier when you have literally even a single idea about what you're doing. Cutting, arranging, sewing, more arranging, more sewing; it was almost meditative, and Jonny quickly lost track of time. By the time the sun had set again, the front half of a baby blanket had been pieced together, a simple log cabin design in the brightest colors he could find.

That was the easy part, though. Jonny wasn't sure where he was going to get a piece of cloth large enough for the backing, let alone soft batting to go in between. They sold it at the general store, but it's not like he had money to spare, and there's no way he could get an entire bolt of fabric in his pocket or under his shirt without being noticed. He'd risked (and gotten) jail time for stupider things, to be sure, but he had some pride.

His answer came a few days later. He'd picked up a job helping the Gresham boys clean out their late grandma's attic. It was hot, thankless work, hauling boxes down the ladder and through the house. They stopped for a break a few hours in when Mrs. Gresham brought sandwiches and lemonade, and Jonny took the opportunity to poke through some of the boxes. Mostly, they were full of old junk: tacky broken lamps, faded and yellowing newspapers, unsettling porcelain figurines. Absentmindedly, Jonny called over his shoulder, "What are you going to do with all this?"

"Take it to the dump, probably. Trying to sell it would be more trouble than it's worth." The oldest, Russell, replied. "Holler if you see anything you want to take home."

Jonny grunted his acknowledgement and continued picking through the pile. Any valuables had been distributed in the will; what remained was overwhelmingly unappealing. Jonny flipped open one last dusty lid, expecting disappointment. Instead, what he found brought him confusion, then excitement. The box was stuffed with stacks of fabric and several rolls of thick cotton batting. It was old, and probably full of spiders, but it was exactly what Jonny was looking for. He hefted the box into his arms and brought it back to where the others were finishing up their lunch.

He set it down, but before he could say anything, Mrs. Gresham spoke up. "Oh, you found Euphemia's old quilting supplies! I swear, she loved her sewing more than some of her children. Can't say I blame her, Anthony always was a bit of a dick. Are you going to take that home for your ma? Speaking of, the boys have worn holes in their jeans again. I'll bring a load of mending over Friday, if she'll be home. Dolly is the only woman I know who could possibly save them, she's a dap hand with a needle and thread."

She continued like this for some time, Jonny making appropriate facial expressions and noises of agreement when required. Mrs. Gresham was an excellent conversationalist, in the sense that she didn't need any help once she got started. Eventually, after a few gentle reminders from Mr. Gresham, she made her excuses and bustled away, and it was back to hauling boxes. At the end of the day, Jonny walked home with a few more dollars in his pocket and an armful of quilting materials.

His mama looked up as he walked in, just for a moment before returning her attention to the sewing machine before her. She didn't ask about the box as Jonny walked to his room and shut the door. He got to work quickly despite his aching muscles, digging through until he found a piece of fabric that was as large as his assembled quilt front and didn't clash horribly with the colors. There ended up being a few options, and he selected the dark blue with a subtle floral pattern. Then it was just a matter of pinning it and sewing it all together; he was basically done already.

He was not. Starting in the middle and working towards the edge, as the book prescribed, he was not quite halfway done before he was too tired to keep his eyes open. Jonny carefully folded his project and tucked it under the bed with the rest of his supplies. Clearly, this final stage would take longer than anticipated, but it's not like he was in any hurry. His last thoughts before drifting off were of the thousand tiny pinpricks still aching in his fingertips.

By the time he had the whole thing pinned together, there was no doubt in Jonny's mind that he would die of old age if he tried to sew the whole thing by hand. He had come too far to stop now, though, and even as he stacked hay bales under the hot sun his thoughts were occupied. It wasn't until he got home late that night and saw his mama's sewing machine sitting unoccupied that the idea occurred to him. She had never told him not to use it, but the topic had never really come up.

A quick tour of the house found both of his parents sound asleep. Quietly, Jonny retrieved his project and the quilting book from his hiding place and took a seat in front of the machine. The stark working light his mama used sent ominous shadows across the otherwise dark house as Jonny made sure there was thread in the bobbin and arranged his soon-to-be-quilt under the presser foot. Hesitantly, he tacked down the thread, then pressed his foot to the pedal. The machine whirred to life, catching him off guard for just a moment before he began to guide the fabric along, sewing neat lines along the blocks of the pattern.

The work was easy and repetitive, and Jonny allowed himself to get lost in it. Before he knew it, there were sunbeams dancing in the windows, catching the dust and throwing in his face the fact that is was morning. That was fine; it wasn't the first sleepless night he'd had, and it would be the last. Still, he swore softly as he gathered up his materials and stashed them back in his room, pulling on a fresh set of work clothes. It was going to be a long day.

It was a long day. Jonny fell into bed that night half-dead, and willfully ignoring his father's yelling. The morning didn't see him much improved, nor the night after, and it was several days before he even thought to work on his quilt again.

It was only when he came home, late as always, and walked in the door just as his mama was neatly folding the mending she had finished that day. It seemed like the pile got bigger every week, but they never had more money to show for it. Just more sleepless nights. She smiled softly when she heard the door open and turned to face Jonny as she picked up the next pair of jeans in the stack.

"There's dinner on the stove, if you want it."

He nodded and shuffled off in search of it. By the time he returned, slightly less famished than before, she was gone and the work light over her machine was turned off. Jonny pulled the cord to re-light it before retrieving his half-finished pile of fabric and thread. It was easy enough to find where he left off, and he returned to his work.

Another sleepless night saw his quilt completed, edges turned up in a way that was passable, if not pretty. Jonny barely had time to appreciate his work before he shoved it once more under his bed and began his day anew. He found himself distracted - a dangerous thing, in today's line of work, too many things that won't hesitate to mangle or kill if given less than your full attention.

But now that he had a quilt, he had to do something with it. It's not like he could tuck it in a trench coat and offer it to people from a dark alley, the way people in comics sold stolen watches. Going door-to-door would be even worse. It's possible he could sell it to the general store, he had seen other handmade goods on display there. They would likely want more than just one quilt, though, and Jonny wasn't sure he could commit to that.

"Vangelis!"

Jonny was broken from his thoughts by a shout, barely heard over the tractor's roar as he threw another hay bale on the wagon. It was Jett, one of the other boys his age. He was walking in Jonny's direction and instinctively he tensed for a fight, though there didn't seem to be any aggressive intent in Jett's demeanor.

"You coming out for drinks tonight?"

The request seemed innocent enough, and Jonny gave Jett a long look before tossing the next bale. "Yeah. Reckon I could go for a drink."

The rest of the day passed quickly with the promise of alcohol at the end of it. Soon enough Jonny found himself sitting at the bar of the Old Stone House Tavern, accompanied by Jett and a few of the other farmhands. Most of the boys had beers, and Eileen was drinking gin. Jonny just stared into his whiskey for a moment too long before throwing it back and ordering another.

The night went by in a blur of dancing and drink. Jonny caught snippets; flicking his hand of cards as someone dealt a round of poker, the crack of his knuckles as he laid someone on their ass, someone's breath on his neck as he pushed open the door into the cold night.

He woke up to someone's arm thrown over his chest, which was noticeably bare, and his face buried in a pillow that was noticeably softer than his own. Through his pounding headache he could see Eileen's dark eyes watching him wake up, amused but not expectant. Jonny did his best to flash his roguish grin but with his dry mouth the best he could manage was a grimace.

Eileen just laughed and rolled over in the bed (which was really too small for the both of them, but apparently they had made it work) as Jonny hauled himself up and began to search for his clothes. Everything was intact, as least, if wrinkled to hell. Only his belt was missing and his wallet was considerably lighter than it had been 24 hours ago. There was a mirror on the wall, and Jonny took a second to attempt to fix his hair before conceding and stepping out the door without a word.

The red New Texan sun beat down as Jonny made his way through the dusty streets back to his own house. Any residual good mood had long worn off by the time he reached his front door and pushed his way inside, half expecting to see his father waiting to chew him out and the other half expecting the place to be deserted.

Instead, he saw his mama sitting pleasantly on the couch, teacup in hand, chatting with an older woman he recognized from the rare occasions he had been dragged to church. Jonny froze, suddenly acutely aware of how bedraggled he looked, but his mama just gave him a glance as the lady - Mrs. Rea, maybe? it sounded right - continued talking about the latest town gossip.

Quietly he slunk past them to his room, trying for once to keep his boots from clunking against the floor and avoid drawing attention to himself. Jonny shut the door as gently as possible and flopped down on the bed, exhausting suffusing his body as the mattress sank to accommodate him. As his eyes drifted shut he realized he could still hear their conversation perfectly through the thin walls of the house.

The drone of their speech was just enough to keep him awake, and he had no choice but to listen as they discussed the pie Anne had brought to the church potluck, and whether or not Sam Rankin was ever going to settle down and get married, and did you hear that my niece was having another baby? The shower's next week, and I still haven't found a gift, Dolly, can you believe that? I don't know what I'm going to do.

Wait a second. Jonny sat up as his mind raced to thoughts of the baby blanket under his bed.

"I'm sure you'll find something, Sheila."

"Oh, but it has to be perfect! Do you remember that quilt you made for my eldest? She still has it tucked in her closet. What I wouldn't give for something like that."

Jonny heard his mama laugh quietly, like she was sharing a joke with herself. "I haven't done anything like that in years, I'm afraid you're out of luck."

By now, Jonny had made his way to the edge of the living room, just out of sight. His quilt was folded up and clutched tightly to his chest. He took a deep breath to steel himself then stepped into sight, his best attempt at a non-threatening smile plastered on his face.

"What about this'n, mama?" He held the quilt out for her inspection.

She took it reverently, unfolding it to reveal the entirety of the design. "But Jonny, this is-"

"That quilt you made. Remember?" She paused a moment in confusion before realization flashed in her eyes.

"Right, that one. I had entirely forgotten about it, thank you Jonny."

Mrs. Rea, for her part, was ecstatic. "Oh, that's so quaint, it's perfect! Would you be willing to sell?"

Dolly glanced at Jonny, who gave a subtle but approving nod.

"I think so, yes."

His work complete, Jonny retreated to his room as the women negotiated the sale. This time the noise wasn't enough to keep him up, and he drifted off into dreamless sleep.

He awoke, briefly, to see his mama stepping into his room. He didn't move as she tucked a few faded bills into his sock drawer before pulling the blanket over his shoulders with the smallest of sighs.

"Oh, Jonny. What am I going to do with you." The fondness in her voice was heartbreaking, and it was all Jonny could do to maintain his cover of unconsciousness as she left the room.

When he woke up properly, it was dark outside, and he could hear his father snoring from the other room. Jonny groaned as he dragged himself out of bed. The long sleep had done wonders for his headache, but he was still sore all over and starving to boot. As he made his way towards the kitchen he paused, just for a moment, and retrieved the cash that had been slipped into his drawer. It was... a lot. More than he had expected. He stuffed it into his pocket and kept moving.

There were no lights on in the house but Jonny navigated the familiar space with ease, digging a can of spam (space spam) out of the cupboard and cracking it open. As he tucked into the can with a spoon he thought about all the things his newfound fortune could buy. A decent pair of boots, a month's worth of whiskey at the Old Stone House, a replacement for his rusted out harmonica.

His thoughts came to their natural conclusion as his spoon scraped out the last of the can's contents. There was only ever one option, really. Jonny got up and washed off his spoon and the can, placing the latter in the bin with the other aluminum recyclables. There was good money there, just not nearly enough of it.

His mama's purse was easy enough to find, placed just out of sight under her sewing desk. Jonny put the money in the main pocket where it would be easy to find. As he stood up to walk out the door, the basket of scrap fabric caught his eye. It was still plenty full. And that green fabric would look real nice with that brown...

Jonny sighed and began digging through the basket. The first one hadn't been easy, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it was something to do. Maybe another one wouldn't be so bad.

The second one went smoother than the first (excepting when the sewing machine broke and Jonny spent a full night doing emergency repairs, only barely getting it working by the time his mama woke up). He got ambitious for the third one, opting for a full-size quilt that took him a full six months from start to finish and had him cursing his hubris by the end of it. It still wasn’t enough to stop him from starting the next one.

Each time, he would surreptitiously give the quilt to his mama to sell, she would sneak the money to him, and he would sneak it right back into her purse. Neither of them said a word about it directly, always dancing around their mutual understanding of each other and their pride.

The money was nice, but it still wasn't enough. His father still gambled, and One Eyed Jack still came a calling. You know how the story ends, because that wasn't the end of the story. Jonny newly D'Ville took off into the stars, and the rest is history. Whether he took his new hobby with him is perhaps not for us to know; but I will say this. There were many long cold nights on the Aurora, and never once did a Mechanism want for a warm blanket.