THE LONG HARVEST by James Marcucci ’16 won a 2016 Scholastic National Gold Medal for Novel Writing. National awards are given to less than 1% of Scholastic entries. Of those, only 15 students across the nation received Gold Medals for Novel Writing in 2016. Enjoy this engaging story.
Part One: Donna
My two daughters walk beside me, heads bent to shield their eyes. Bitter gusts of wind scourge our skin. Black ash and bone dust stick to our cloaks. The pale sun beats a sharp tune on our backs. Beth carries her brother’s sword at her hip and Cindy wears a rope bracelet that he made. Before us, the officer pulls his wooden cart up the hill, long black hair tied back into braids that hang past his shoulders. On his right arm a golden dog head glints in the light.
Months ago the air tasted like fruit and forest and grain. It moved about in slow breezes, ruffling hair and cooling skin. There were no soldiers then, and my children weaved flowers into each other’s hair. Cindy loved white dandelions, Beth thorny roses, and Alan sunflowers.
Now, they wear their hair short and all the flowers are dead. In profile, Beth looks just like her brother, if something had stolen his smile away. Cindy’s bright red curls hang limply against her pale, drawn face. Alan rolls in front of us, under a linen shroud and within a wooden coffin.
The dry soil seeps between my toes, we crest the hill, and I see the remains of our farm.
“Gods be good,” murmurs the officer.
“They never are,” I reply.
Cindy and Beth ran, laughing as their brother chased them with a wooden stick. My husband Emmon and I stood inside the house, looking at them through the small round window. The trees were ready for harvest, branches heavy with succulent peaches. The field was flush with wheat, stalks higher than the children’s heads. The stream gurgled lazily down the other side of our house, silver fish darting in and out of the surface with little splashes of water.
Cindy and Beth stand silent, too shocked to respond. Nothing has been spared. Our home lies broken upon the ground, shards of wood and stone strewn across the plain as if a great arm had cast them down. The leafless trees meld together, looking like the brown skeleton of a dead forest. Scars of grey decay mar the fields. Even the stream lies like a corpse on the ground, half-rotted clumps of fish sticking to its sides.
The smells of brimstone and burnt hair hang in the air.
The officer sniffs and rubs his ivory thumb-ring, shivering in the heat. “Witchery.” He mutters, turning towards us. “I’ll make sure the taint didn’t seep into the ground. You should watch the body.”
“No,” I hiss. “It’s my land.” I start down the side of the hill. The officer follows. My heart cools as I look at the ruined earth around me. “Girls!” I turn back to them. “Prepare a pyre for your brother. We’re not putting him in this ground.”
They nod. Cindy stays with her brother’s body. Beth walks off towards the woods. The officer and I continue down the hillside, along the river, towards the house. The water slows as the land turns level. The fish corpses grow thicker in the stream and the stench of decay grows fouler in the air.
“I am sorry about everything you’ve suffered.” The officer gestures to the barren land around him.
I smile bitterly. “I should’ve expected the guard dogs of the military to turn tail when the battle turned bloody.”
“That’s not true!” The officer doesn’t meet my eyes, and his voice sounds slow and sad. “We fought, we failed, and we fell, but your son and I never ran.”
“Running away, retreating, there’s no difference.”
“You’re wrong. A soldier retreats. He marches, his bladder trembling and knees begging to run. He ignores the fear, and he stands at his next post and holds for as long as he has to. Only beasts and cowards run. They forget their brothers. They forget everything but their fear.”
As we move close to the house, my husband’s grave comes into view. I see the disturbed earth around it and start to run. The officer sprints behind, shouting something that I don’t hear.
We buried Emmon a few days after midsummer. The sun hung large and low, the birds chirped on the breeze, and my heart withered inside of my chest. Alan had collapsed to hand and knees, sobbing and screaming at his father’s coffin. Beth cried quietly, tear tracks etched across her young face. Cindy kept asking me how her Daddy was going to work if we put him underground.
The night he died he sat with the children, sharing jokes and stories. I stood outside, digging his grave and letting my tears water the dirt. By the time I finished the sun had risen and he was dead. The hole was shallow and short and unworthy of him.
The grave lies open, dirt scattered around it as if a pack of dogs had smelled his bones. Within the grave, the coffin cover lies broken into two pieces. A shuddering line in the ground stretches from the empty pit to the open doorway of the house.
“No,” I whisper, fist trembling at my side. “Please don’t make me kill him.”
“You don’t have to.” The officer stands at my side, the long silver blade of his sword gleaming. “I’ve dealt with these monsters before. Stay back. If it kills me, run. And while you run, pray. Pray to trip and crack your head open before it reaches you.”
“I don’t pray”
The officer raises his eyebrow. “Your son did. Before a charge, he’d clutch his necklace to his chest and whisper-”
I shove past him and enter the house. Something crunches under my feet and cuts into my soles. I look down and see a skeleton, skull shattered like a glass. It’s Emmon. I recognize the clothes I buried him in. I’d stepped on the lower part of his left leg, crushed the brittle bone beneath me, and drove the broken shards into my foot. I gag. The officer runs into the room. He pauses, looks between me and the corpse, and kneels by the head. As his fingers begin to poke and prod at the massive hole in my husband’s head, my stomach rolls again and I want to scream at him to stop. The words don’t come.
His voice enters my ears as if through thick cloth. “A hammer? A staff? Perhaps the blunt side of an axe?” I force my eyes away from the body and look at the officer. He crouches on the ground, rubbing his chin with his other hand. “This blow was deliberate, and effective. This takes training. Who might have been in your house since you left?”
“How would I know?” My hackles rose. How dare he come into my house, paw my husband’s corpse, put me on trial? “I haven’t been here since a messenger told me the army had collapsed and I had to flee.”
He winced, then rose, sword still in hand. “Well, someone was in your house since then. We have to search it, every room.”
I wave my hand at the broken walls and scattered bricks. “What rooms? Everything is torn and broken down but the cellar. If you think I’d let you rummage around down there, you’re mistaken.”
He holds his sword out to me hilt-first. “At least take this.”
“I hate swords.”
“So did Alan. Oh, what was it he’d always say? An axe can cut down trees to keep you warm. A hammer can build strong walls to keep you safe. But a sword is-“
“-But a sword is only good for murder. It was a saying of his father’s”
The officer glances at the corpse. “From what Alan told me, he was a good man. I would’ve liked to meet him.”
“He hated soldiers.”
I grab the sword, open the cellar door, and walk down the steps.
The door slams shut behind me. I wait for a moment at the base of the stairs, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. Barrels and wooden boxes stand out against deeper shadows. I rap my knuckles on one and hear a dull thud. No echo. I check the rest one by one, walking deeper into the darkness of the room. All are full.
There’s enough in them to feed my daughters and me for months, or to fill a bandit’s purse with copper. Why hadn’t they-
A slow, shuddering exhale echoes out from the corner of the cellar. The inhale cuts off halfway through. Holding the sword like an oversized kitchen knife, I stalk slowly past the last few barrels and boxes. One, to my left, is missing its lid. A small bundle of rags leans against the wall. The bandit must be hiding underneath.
I raise the sword above my head, about to spit out a challenge when something soft, small, and round hits me in my face. I blink, and a second object strikes me between my eyes. I catch this one, and smell it. A dried peach.
“Nonono-” A high pitched voice mutters from the darkness. A child? He hits me in the arm with another peach. “Stay away, stay away.”
I lower the sword and step closer. Another peach flies past my ear. “Stop throwing those things!” I whisper, careful not to let the officer upstairs hear. I’m not about to let him execute some child for banditry if he only stole to keep herself alive.
“You’re not- You’re not one of them!” A small figure bursts out of the bundle and wraps its arms around me. The sword slides out of my loose fingers. With the other hand I pat the head of wild blonde hair pressed against my midsection.
The figure, a boy younger than Cindy, looks at me with big, wet, blue eyes. I can see the trust in them and I shudder. No one should look at me like that. I notice what he’s wearing. It is dirty and torn, and its color is faded, but I know what the dog head on his shoulder means.
“You’re a deserter?” I ask, hoping that he’d just stolen the clothes.
His face falls. “Please,” he whispers. “Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to die.”
I step away and stare at him.
He doesn’t look anything like my dead boy.
His messy tufts of blonde hair stick out in every direction.
Alan had cropped his red hair, his father’s hair, tight to his skull, military style.
He’s short. Crown of his head comes up to my chest. His face is soft but drawn with worry.
When did he get taller than me? His jaw had broadened over the years, lost the baby fat his sisters made fun of. He had a scar on his chin. Beth gave it to him years before with a wooden stick when they played together in the woods.
His eyes are bright blue, and tear tracks ran down past his chin.
His eyes were hard, green, and resigned I’d seen eyes like that once before, when I looked in the river the day my husband fell ill. It was an ugly, bitter look on me. On my boy it was sickening.
His uniform, barely recognizable through the dirt coating it, hangs loosely on his thin form.
His uniform, worth more than our entire harvest, was immaculate. He must’ve walked right here from the recruiting office. It clung tightly to his skin, muscles made for growing and building instead clad in hard leather and cold iron.
“I’ll do anything,” he says. “Just don’t turn me in.”
“I’m joining up,” he said. “I wanted you to hear it from me.”
“Shut up and stay here,” I reply, picking up the sword and turning back towards the cellar door. “I’ll… figure something out.”
“You’d leave your sister and me to tend the harvest all alone?” I spat out, turning my back to my boy. “I won’t take you back after you’ve had your fill of blood. Once you leave that door, you don’t return.”
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
“Goodbye. I love you, mom.”
I should have begged him to stay. Instead I threw him away like trash, killed him surely as any sword.
But I can still keep this boy safe.
I exit the cellar and re-enter the main room of my house. My husband’s skeleton no longer lies on the floor, which looks swept clean. The officer stands against the wall, one hand holding an arrow up against a lamp in his other. The barbs on its tip cast strange, flickering shadows against the ground. He looks at me and puts the arrow back in its quiver.
“Well?” he says. “You were down there for a while. Did you find anything?”
When I was a little girl, I once saw a deserter the army had recaptured. A surgeon made a small incision below his stomach, and his commanding officer pulled out the coward’s intestines with hot pincers. Once removed, they were inspected for deficiencies. Whether or not any were found, the man’s remains were denied proper burial. Instead, they were tossed in a shallow pit, and covered with lye.
It is a slow, painful death, and no child deserves it.
I hand the officer his sword. “Nothing there but rats.”
He shrugs. “I suspected as much. No bandit would stay around after ransacking a house.” He waves his hand toward the door. “Your girls are done making the pyre. Shall we put Alan to rest?”
The sigh of relief escaping my chest catches in my throat. I swallow and nod. Better to finish it quick and early rather than let it drag out. The longer it took, the more it would hurt in the end.
I exit and see Beth and Cindy standing around a small pile of sticks. They have been lashed into a rectangle, and Alan lies on top of them. His white funeral shroud billows in the breeze.
I am struck by a desire to look upon my boy’s face, to look into his eyes and apologize before the opportunity is forever lost. I stride forwards, move Beth and Cindy gently out of the way, and I peel back the shroud.
His split-open skull grins back at me.
I let him leave. I drove him away. I killed him. I killed my joy. I killed my son.
I sob and laugh into my hands.
The officer pulls the shroud back over the ruined remains of Alan’s face.
I glance at my remaining children and manage to steady my breathing. I pull them close. The officer stands across from us, looking at Alan’s face. His sword gleams red in the lamplight.
“So,” I say. “Who will speak first on his behalf?”
“I… I can try,” sobs Cindy against my side. She wipes her face, steps forward, and clears her throat. “Alan was the only brother I’ve ever known. He taught how to make flower crowns, and how to swim against a current, and how to smile on sad days. He made me laugh and he made me think. He was my hero, and the world is lesser now that he’s gone.”
Beth speaks next. Her face is blank and hard. “Alan was my little brother. He came into the world minutes after me, and I thought we’d always stay together. But, he wanted glory and he died to get it. He was half of me, and the world is lesser now that he’s gone.”
The officer steps forward. “Alan was my most trusted man, my shield and my sword and whatever I asked of him. When we were deep behind enemy lines, without horses or hope, he held the rear long enough for me to escape. I owe him my life… I owe him everything. He was a good man, a better friend, and the world is lesser now that he is gone. “
All three look to me, but my mind is blank. Then, looking at the covered wreckage of my boy, words begin to force themselves out of my throat. “Alan had his father’s kindness and my stubbornness, without the caution that tempered either of us. But he was my son, he was my sweet boy, and there is a hole in me now that he is gone.”
There is nothing more to say, and so I grab the torch and brush it against his shroud. With a gust of heat it catches flame. The sickly sweet smell of oil nearly covers the stench of burning flesh. We stand in silence as the flames quiet down and Alan turns to ashes.
The flames die. Nothing of my son remains, his remains mixed with that of his kindling sticks. The officer speaks first, his voice thick. “I have to go,” he says. “There was someone else in my company, a friend of your son’s. I don’t know if he had family, but if he did, someone must tell them about their son.”
He came to our tent in the refugee camp at early dawn three days ago. “Are you the mother of Alan Hunter?” I nodded, dread growing in my stomach. He swallowed and spoke, his voice slow and solemn. “Your son died a hero, alone but unafraid, fighting against hordes of the enemy. It was an honor to serve beside him, and I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I nod. “We understand. And thank you, for bringing him home. “He turns to leave, but I speak in a rush. “If you find your lost boy’s mother, don’t tell her that her son died a hero’s death. Lie if you have to. But, tell her he died of a wound or illness after the battle, surrounded by his friends and thinking of home and her.”
“Do you think it will help? “
“Nothing helps. But say it anyways.”
He crests the hill. Cindy gathers up Alan’s ashes in a small clay urn. Beth takes his old sword and walks toward the forest, shoulders hunched in anger. I re-enter the house.
The cellar door lies open and the deserter boy is standing halfway towards the far door. He looks even smaller from farther away, dwarfed by his big cloth cloak and oversized uniform. I cough and he yelps.
He turns to me, and his eyes are red from crying. There have been too many tears recently.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I put the peaches back,” he says.
I laugh despite myself. Who cares about the damn peaches? I imagine him throwing those at the officer, and laugh even harder.
His face colors and his eyebrows draw together. “Are you laughing at-“
The door behind me bursts open, and Cindy runs in, urn in hand. “Mom!” she shouts. “What’s happen-“
A peach hits her in the face. My laughter grows again. I force myself to stop, and take a deep breath, barely managing to maintain my composure. I raise an eyebrow at the deserter. He shrugs. “Okay, so maybe I didn’t put them all back. “
Another chuckle almost pushes through my lips, but I bite down on the inside of my cheek. Cindy looks at me like I’ve gone crazy. I suspect she’s right.
“Mom, who is he?”
“Nobody,” replies the deserter, edging towards the door.
I grab him by the hood of his cloak and hold him, struggling, a few feet from the exit. “This is…” I look at the deserter and give him a shake.
“Kay,” he sighs.
“This is Kay. He’ll be staying with us for a while.”
The two of them share a look, Cindy motions toward Kay, and he speaks. “I heard you all talking about your son. It didn’t seem like you’d want someone new.”
“We don’t want you around, but we’re desperate,” I say. “Without Alan, we’re missing a strong pair of arms and legs that we need in order to ready this land for harvest by autumn. Otherwise, we’ll all starve come winter.”
“So I can stay if I work? “
“You owe me your life, remember? I expect tenfold repayment.” I look at Cindy. “Sound good to you?”
“Yeah!” Her voice sounds lighter than before, her mind too occupied with this problem to think of her brother. I smile inwardly. Perhaps I’m not the worst parent after all. “I can think of half a dozen things to start work on.”
“Well, get started then.” I usher the two of them towards the door. “I’m tired and old and I need to sleep. Wake me at dawn, so I can start repairing the house.”
The two of them exit together, Cindy whispering excitedly under her breath and Kay nodding along. I smile and lay down on the floor. I know my neck will hurt in the morning, but right now I feel the best I have in three days.
In my dream, I see Beth and Alan shouting and running together, children once again. Cindy and her father speak as they never had in real life, each thinking up riddles to stump the other. As I sit and stare at them, I wish to never wake up.
Part 2: Cindy
The sun stings my shoulders, summer’s last gasp of heat before the onset of autumn. I stand in a shallow pool and scan the water’s surface again. Still no stalks of wheat. They were due to sprout weeks ago.
I turn around and trudge towards the edge, grumbling through gritted teeth. Kay sits on the side of the irrigation ditch, feet dangling just above the water. He’s hunched over, playing with something in his hands. I lean against the earthen wall and he grunts a greeting.
“So,” I speak slowly, softly, as if someone is trying to listen in. “Our irrigation ditch doesn’t work.” It had taken weeks to build, too. First we ran the dirty river water through a series of strainers to purify it. Then we shifted all that now-clean water from the river into the fields. It took a lot of digging, and Mom had no money for shovels, so it was all done by hand. Weeks after we finished, I still feel phantom specks of dirt underneath my nails.
Kay doesn’t respond.
I look up at the smoke drifting up from our half-repaired house and keep talking. “Bet you twenty-to-one it’s peaches and hardtack again.” All we had were the stale supplies from the cellar, and those would soon be empty. “Could be worse,” I continue. “Beth could be cooking.”
Kay grunts his assent.
“Are you even listening to me?”
He grunts again, then growls in frustration, then yelps in pain. I look over, blood chilling, as he raises his hands. I laugh when I see what he holds. A mess of string and cloth, stretched between his fingers like the web of a blind spider.
“Damn this cloth!” he shouts, shaking his hands about in the air. The tangle bobs up and down, stuck fast to his fingers.
I start to laugh and he glares at me, face turning red. I laugh harder. “Looks like you’re having fun.”
“Fun! You think this is fun?” He tries to shake his hands at me, stops as he begins to pull the cloth apart. “My fingers feel like a keyhole on a drunk’s door.” Drops of blood begin to run down the string around his index finger. “And now I’ve given my new cloak an accidental dye job.”
“Here” I grab a bolt of white cloth at his side, dip it in the water, and offer it to him. “Clean your hands. Sewing is hard enough with blood all over the place.”
He sighs and nods, pulling the mess off of his hands and putting it aside. He wipes his fingers clean and looks at me. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. But, why were you sewing up something in the first place?”
“Your mother. She said that winter is on its chilly way and it would be wise for me to get a new cloak. At first I thought she would buy one, but then she handed me all…” He gestures with a shrug to the ruined cloth on the ground around him. “This. You wouldn’t know how to…?”
“Oh, no. Dad did the sewing.” He was a surgeon before he bought the farm. Said after a few years of threading up people, things that didn’t move, scream, or struggle were easy. Alan knew how to sew; the basics at least. He always said he wanted to be a doctor like Dad. “Beth and Mom don’t know either, if you were thinking of asking them to do it for you.”
“Shit,” he says, drawing the tattered remnants of his military cloak closer around him. “Guess this is better than nothing.”
It hangs loosely off his body, far too big for him. Come winter, the cold air will seep right through it. I imagine him with a blue face, with chattering teeth, with frost-bitten hands. Perhaps he’d go to sleep one night and never wake up the next day.
“Wait…” He pauses, and I continue. “Mom kept of Alan’s old clothes when he left, some of them might fit you.” My brother would have given his clothes away himself, if he could see Kay’s pitiful state. And yet it still feels like a betrayal.
All thoughts of Alan feel that way. Before he left, he asked me to keep track of everything that he would miss. Sometimes, when I see something he’d love to hear about and I go to write it down. It’s only when I open the book and see the blank pages that I remember he died.
Kay spoke, knocking me out of my thoughts. His voice was quick and quiet. “No, I can’t.”
“What, why not?“
“I just won’t, alright. Let’s leave it at that.”
“You’re being ridiculous! I’ll even wash them, if I have to.”
“It’s not that.”
“What is it, then?”
“I…” he tugs at the frayed hem of his uniform. “I’m already wearing his clothes.”
I sit in silent shock, staring at him. The cloak billows around his frame like a shadow, swallowing him up in its dark expanse. It was made for a much larger figure, I realize. I whisper, inaudibly, “What?”
“I didn’t steal them, I swear I didn’t. He gave it to me because I had none and we were heading north.”
“You knew my brother?” My mind flashes back to the funeral, to the officer speaking of another soldier who he’d lost. “You’re him,” I find myself saying. “You’re the other dead boy.”
He winces. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “I heard The Captain say something about that.”
“How are you even alive?”
“I ran away,” he spits the words out like venom. “Like a coward.”
I remember a talk I had with Alan a few days before he joined up. I was telling him about one of my favorite fairytale heroes. He fake-pouted, and asked me why he wasn’t my hero. I told him he hadn’t done anything heroic. It had been a stupid, childish thing to say. I didn’t know he’d taken it to heart.
When faced with impossible odds, when the only choice was between valor and cowardice, what could be more heroic than dying with courage?
I hiccup, eyes wet. I wipe them dry. “Don’t be stupid,” I tell Kay. “Running away was the smart thing to do.”
“No it wasn’t!” he screams at me. It’s the first time I’ve heard him raise his voice. His face is twisted with hatred and anger. I recoil before I realize it’s directed at himself. “After I joined, Alan was the only one who looked out for me. He gave me his coat and he called me ‘little brother’ and when he was in trouble I ran away like some kid! I didn’t want to! You have to believe that I didn’t.” His voice grew desperate.“I was supposed to watch our horses, make sure they were ready for the others, but some of the corpse-soldiers came out of the mist and spooked the horses. I couldn’t control the animals, and I couldn’t fight the monsters, so I ran.”
He curls in on himself, shoulders shaking. “When I told him I had no family, Alan said if I ever wanted it, there was a place at your farm for me. So, I ran here. But the house was empty. So, I hid in the cellar and waited for him.” He rubs his face. “He never came.”
I pat his back like Alan would comfort me after a nightmare. “He promised me he’d come back,” I say. “During the first month, I was so excited about him fighting monsters like a hero. Then, after the wounded started to shuffle into town and I heard the horror stories of the front, I just prayed for him to come home.” I shake my head. “Don’t ever blame yourself for getting out of their alive. I know Alan would never have wanted you to.”
Kay rubs his eyes. “Yeah, I know.”
“And, he would’ve wanted you to take his old clothes. Probably would’ve given them to you himself, if he could.”
He nods, then gives me a strange look. “You know, he told me you were always right, but I never believed him.”
We stand up together, leaving the clumps of cloth and thread on the ground behind us. “Ha! You shouldn’t trust everything he told you. Look around you, my ditch hasn’t grown anything.”
He nods. “Alright. But is Beth really as mean as he said?”
I laugh again. “Meaner.”
As we wade through the water towards the house, something digs into the sole of my feet. I wince, frown, reach under the water to pull out whatever debris had sunk to the bottom, and wrap my hands around a hard mass that stretches down into the dirt. My mouth drops open.
“Uh, Cindy?” Kay stares at me. “Are you okay?”
“I take that back” I reply, shaking myself out of my stupor. “I am always right.”
Chapter 3: Beth
Left. Right. Left. Right. I hack away at the painted tree, red splinters flying past my face as my sword digs and tears into its trunk. Sweat drips down my neck and my shoulders ache, but I keep swinging until my arms drop from exhaustion and the sword clatters on the ground. I sigh and sit against the tree.
The air is thick with the cold of winter’s birth. It smells of dead wood and deer piss. I suppose I should be happy that wildlife is returning to the forest, but the stench makes me ill. But, at least the forest is silent, unlike the fields of wheat near home. Cindy sings, poorly, and mother adds pieces to the house with a hammer and nails. Worse, Kay talks constantly, prancing about like a jester in motley made of my brother’s old clothes.
I hold Alan’s sword up against the sunlight and my reflection looks back at me. My face is sharper than I remember, thin from lack of food. Alan’s was always thick and flush with life. But, my eyes are the same green shade as his. I put the sword aside and hear a voice form behind the trees.
“Is it safe to approach? Or are you still swinging that blade like you know what you’re doing?”
She walks out around a tree, staring at the sword beside me. “Well, I suppose you would be the one to follow Alan’s example.” She smiles bitterly.
“I don’t plan to join the army.” They are all fickle, fiendish, and foolish. “But someone needs to know how to use a sword, for protection at least.”
“No.” She shakes her head. “All swords do is kill. You should bury it.”
A sword is more than a death dealer. It is a lever made from steel and leather that, if applied with a sufficient lack of mercy, could shift the world in your favor. Now that the deserter had stolen his clothes, the sword was the only piece of Alan that wasn’t reduced to ash.
But, Cindy can’t see it that way. When she looks at the naked blade she remembers our brother’s ruined face. “You’re right,” I lie. “I’ll toss it in the river.”
She rolls her eyes. “Of course you will. Just, whatever you do with it, don’t let Mom see. I don’t think she could stand to lose another one of us to those things.” She lets out a long breath. “And it’s dinnertime, by the way. Kay is cooking.”
“Bread and peaches again?”
“Could be worse.”
“I could be cooking?”
She grins at me. “I was going to say we could still be eating hardtack, but that’s at least edible”
I laugh and the tension between falls away as if Alan had never left. We walk through the forest together, talking of pleasant things and happy memories. It feels nice, but strange with just the two of us.
“Kay’s probably checking his traps now,” says Cindy. “He’s sure there will be something in them today.”
“You think he’ll give up?”
“No, he’s just as stubborn as we are.” The corners of her mouth curl up as she talks about him. “He might never catch anything, but he’ll check those traps every day until he’s eighty.”
We leave the forest. I see smoke billow out of our chimney and smell baking bread on the wind. Kay must have convinced Mom to help him cook.
A figure stands on the hillside. I look at Cindy. She hasn’t seen him yet.
“Why don’t you go help your boyfriend with his traps? I’ll bake with mom.”
She huffs, but heads back into the forest.
I walk up the hill. The weight of the sword in my hand is a cold comfort. As I approach him, the figure faces me and I recognize him. A young man, of shorter than average height. His black hair is cut short and his has a nobleman’s nose. He rubs his ivory thumb ring against the hilt of his sword, thin fingers clenched around its leather grip. The gold hound emblem on his shoulders gleams in the sunlight, as do his officer’s epaulets.
The officer glances at Alan’s sword. “He hated that thing, you know. He’d always say that-“
“I don’t care what Alan would say. He’s dead and the dead don’t speak.” My grip on the sword tightens. “What the hell are you doing here? We’ve got no place for military dogs.
“I just want to pay my respects.”
“Well, scurry along then. We both know a dog of the military has no respect to pay. ”
“Please.” His voice breaks and I remember how he cried the day we burned Alan’s body. “I’ve been ordered back to active duty. This is the last chance I have to say goodbye. There are things I can’t leave unsaid.”
I grit my teeth and give in. “Come on. His ashes are above in the fireplace.”
He smiles. “Thank you.”
We walk toward the house. The silence hangs in the air, oppressive and weighty. I break it.
“So, what ‘active duty’ brings you here?“
“Oh, nothing dangerous,” he says, opening the door to the house. “Just looking for deserters.”
I run after him, burst into through the door to a scene that makes my teeth clench. Kay stands in front of the window on the other side of the dinner table, wearing in an old blue shirt of Alan’s. Why isn’t he in the forest with Cindy? Where is Mom?
The officer stands to my left, scanning the room.
“Excuse me,” he says to Kay, “But could you point me towards the ashes? I just need a moment and I’ll be out of your hair.”
Kay’s shoulders tighten and his hands grip the wooden sides of the stone cooking slab. The bread baking on it trembles as his hands shake. He stays silent.
The officer speaks again, his voice a little higher, a little more exasperated. “Excuse me?”
I have to get him out of here. “The man’s deaf,” I say. “Might as well stop talking at him. I’ll get the ashes for you.” I walk towards the fireplace to my right, looking for the urn. “You can pay your respects outside, where you can’t bother the cook.”
The officer colors. “Of course.” He follows me. “Is that it?” He points to a little clay urn.
I nod, and he grabs the urn. As he lifts it into the air, the back door opens with a crash. The officer drops the urn in surprise, and I catch it just before it hits the ground.
“Kay!” shouts Cindy from the doorway. Two dead birds hang from a trap in her hands. “Your things worked! We’re having meat with dinner.”
“Wait,” says the officer, turning towards that side of the room. “Kay?”
Kay takes a shuddering breath and turns toward the other man. “Boss,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
The officer pulls his sword a quarter out of his scabbard, staring wide-eyed at his former subordinate. “You’re alive?” He glances at us. “What is going on here?“
Well, no use trying to hide him now. I shrug. “Mom just found him in our cellar one day. I didn’t ask any questions.”
He glares at Kay. “You were here? This whole time I thought you dead and you were here, laughing at me?”
“I’m so sorr-”
“I buried you! Sorry doesn’t make up for that!”
Cindy spoke, voice quiet but defiant. “Please don’t take him away.” She meets my gaze then looks down, at the sword in my hand. She looks back at the officer. “Just leave and forget you saw this.”
I swallow and heft the blade, staring at the crown of his head. A good, sharp blow would do it. Just like killing a fish after catching it, surely. Surely.
“Leave? I’m a captain, I can’t just-”
“What is going on here?”
Cindy’s back straightens. I hide the sword behind me. The officer sheathes his own weapon. In the doorway, one arm resting against the doorframe and her other hand at her hip, stands Mother.
“I said, what is going on here?” She talks as the officer wasn’t even in the room. “You all don’t expect me to prepare dinner all by myself, do you?” She snaps her fingers twice. “Now get to work.“
The officer sputters, then coughs, then replies. “You are harboring a deserter in your home and I demand to know why.”
“Well, I won’t tell you anything on an empty stomach.”
“Surely even deserters deserve a good last meal?”
“Well, I suppose-”
“So it’s settled. Please, sit.” She turns to Kay. “You better make sure you haven’t burnt that bread.” He runs over to the hot stone, and she turns to Cindy. “Pluck and roast those pheasant.” She goes outside and mom turns to me. “Wash the plants.” Grumbling, I grab the dirty vegetables on the table and walk out. Behind me, I hear her say. “And I’ll get the wine. I have a feeling we’ll need it.
After preparing the food, we sit down together at the table and begin to eat in silence. I notice that the only one who was served wine was the officer. Kay’s eyes flash toward the door every time the officer moves. The officer touches the scabbard at his side whenever Kay picks up his knife and fork. The quiet grows uncomfortable for everyone but Mom, who seems to serenely enjoy the food.
Cindy tears off a hunk of bread in her teeth, chews, swallows, and sighs. “Oh, slay this!” She turns to the officer and pokes him in the chest. “You! Kay says you and my brother were close in the service, right?” He nods. “Well, then tell us a story or two about him!”
“Well, alright. There’s so many to choose from.” His eyes look glassy in the candlelight. “I don’t think the rest of the company put together got in trouble as much as him. But, his greatest prank, the one that should’ve gotten him court-martialed, he pulled off a hundred miles North of Plink, when were under the command of General Zolo.”
“Is this fish one?” asks Kay. “Because that was General June.”
“Oh, you’re right. I can’t believe I forgot.”
They begin to tell the story together, each providing their own perspective and filling in the holes in the other’s memory. Cindy’s smile never leaves her face as she takes in the stories, laughing and encouraging the speakers. Mother wears a blank expression on her face, though her eyes are wet. All I can think is that my brother should adventured with us, not these two.
After all the wine is drunk, all the food eaten, and many stories told, the officer stands on shaky legs. “I have to go,” he says, slurring slightly. “Need to get to base before morning, and I’ve spent too long here already.” He looks at Kay and frowns. “You should come with me, Kay. I can argue a pardon for you, I know I could.”
“I’m happy here.” The deserter glances at Cindy, mom, and I before resting his eyes on the officer. “You might have a warrior’s instincts, but I don’t. My hands are made for digging ditches, not splitting skulls.”
“I think the same of myself, sometimes. But Kay, you made a choice to join the army. You can’t just ignore the consequences of your decision.”
Mom spoke. “I believe you’re mistaken, officer.” Her voice is calm but firm. “My son’s name is not Kay.”
“What are you-?”
“It was quite a surprise, indeed, when he returned to me. What a strange lookalike you must have found on the battlefield, that both of us mistook him for my boy.”
“He looks noting like Alan!”
“Oh? He looks quite the same to me. But what do I know? I’m just his mother.”
Cindy chimes in. “Perhaps it’s the drink that’s confused your vision.”
“I don’t think-”
“The gods have been kind to give me back my son once. I don’t know if I could take losing him again.”
The officer swallows and shakes his head. “Perhaps the wine has gone a bit to my head.” He looks at the deserter. “Treasure your family, Alan, they’re kinder than most.” He turns, walks to the door, and pauses, scanning the room. “Goodnight, goodbye, good luck.”
He leaves. In his wake, the door hangs open to the night.
After a long period of silence, Kay speaks. “Thank you so much. I don’t know how to repay you.”
“Well,” replies Mother. “You can start by cleaning the dishes.”
I stand and leave, the sound of Cindy’s laughter and Kay’s groan echoing behind me. Sword in hand, I walk up the hill to the river, where a silhouette stands out against the deep shadows of night. As I approach, I hear the sound of ragged, wretched sobbing.
I pause, clear my throat, and the officer turns to look at me. His eyes are red and fat tears roll down his face. His golden epaulets float in the river behind him. I gesture at them with my sword. “Seems like a waste to just throw something valuable away like that.”
He laughs bitterly. “Don’t worry, I paid nothing for them. The blood of my men bought them. Wearing makes me feel dirty.” He shrugs. “It was a symbolic gesture, I’ll probably forget once I’m sober.”
“Forget, like the man you saw in my house?”
The officer’s throat gleamed white in the moonlight as he stood silent. A short slash would do the job, and he wouldn’t speak a word about tonight to anyone.
After a few moments, he spoke. “I wish I could, I truly do. But there is too little justice in the world already for me to let even a friend’s crime go unpunished.”
I thrust my sword at his naked throat. His eyes widen, and he stumbles drunkenly away. He totters into the river, almost falling on his back before getting his balance and staring at me. My sword point hovers just above his neck.
The water flows over our feet. “You know, your brother used to talk about this place. He said you two would play in it when you were children. Are you sure you wish to dirty those memories with my blood?”
“Shut up!” Blood pounds like drumbeats in my ears. “You can’t talk your way out of this.”
“It used to irritate me, the way he’d go on about you all. I’ve heard the story about Cindy hiding a snake in his boot more times than I heard our regiment’s marching song.”
I bite my lip as a pang runs through my heart. “He was always chatty.”
“Chatty? If I had a coin for every time he was insubordinate I’d be richer than God.”
The image of the officer weathering Alan’s wit brings a little smile to my face. I stomp any warm feelings down and press my sword against his neck, harder. I think of Cindy and Mom and even the deserter. I have to keep them safe now that Alan and Dad are gone. “Any last words to try and save your neck?”
“No, cut it open. Make the world just.”
The blade trembles. “What are you talking about?”
“It was me, Beth,” sobs the officer. “I’m the one who killed your brother.”
“It was a scouting mission gone wrong. He and I were running from a horde of those damn undead. We made it to a little pass just south of the lines, but we were so tired.” His face contorts into an anguished grimace. “You have no idea what it’s like, to fight an enemy without fatigue, without fear, without mercy. One of us needed to hold the gap, slow them long enough for the other to deliver information to command.”
“Shut up!” I press the blade almost to his neck, but he keeps talking.
“Noblesse Oblige, my dad used to tell me. You have to be willing to throw down your life for your subordinates, else you are not fit to command them. Gods, I should’ve stayed. I could’ve stayed. It would have been so easy. I could’ve even left it to chance, pulled some straws and let the unlucky one stay. But I was cold, and tired, and afraid and I ordered your brother to stay and die to save me.”
“Why- Why did you tell me that? Do you want to die?”
“ I’d like to see him, to apologize, but I don’t think I’ll end up in the same place. He was my best friend, and I traded his life to save my skin.” He touches his shoulder where the epaulets had been. “Even got a promotion out of the deal.” He shakes his head. “I can’t carry that anymore.”
He leans into the blade just enough the break the skin before I pull it away and let my arm hang at my side. Red drops of blood slide off its tip and swirl in the river current.
What would Alan say? “What are you, some kinda idiot?”
I drop my sword on the ground and wade past him into the river. “You think you earned your epaulets by selling my brother’s soul.” They flash in the water, and I pull them out. “Well, you could just as easily save the deser- Kay’s.”
“That wouldn’t make up for it.”
“No shit it wouldn’t. It’s just a start. You’ll have to keep at it for the rest of your life, and guess what, you still might not make it into the light. But, I know Alan would be disappointed in you if you gave up now.”
He takes the epaulets from my open palm with a smile. “Thank you, Beth. You’re just as wise as he said you were.”
He walks away, and doesn’t look back. I turn towards the river and hesitate for a moment before throwing the sword into the water. Alan wasn’t a soldier, not in his heart, and a weapon was a poor reminder of him.
Now all I had left of him were my memories. I hoped it would be enough.
I feel the dried coat of white paint on our new door, carved and painted by Cindy and me. I smell the familiar scent of Mom’s apple crumble, unknown in our home since Alan’s last birthday at home. I taste it on my tongue, sweet as my memory with perhaps a spice or two added by Kay. I hear Mom bustle about, cooking pans clanging on counters, as Cindy and Kay shout and laugh at each other. I can picture all three of them in my mind. Mother, a weathered smile on her face as she looks at the two of them. Cindy, smile and eyes flashing as she talks circles around Kay. Kay himself, subdued in contrast to Cindy, barely believing that he could stay.
I enter. For the first time in months, it feels like home.