Summary: Adam decides to join the Federal Army and has to deal with the consequences. A story of losses and miracles, told in ten vignettes.
Word Count: 3300
This story is very dear to me. It contains my very first forays into writing fiction, those first bits and pieces I ever dared to present the public.
“This is not your war.”
“But it is. There are men out there fighting for what I believe in—and they are losing. They need me.”
“Your family needs you too, Adam.”
“You don’t understand. This is important!”
She stared at him, unbelieving.
The next morning he was gone.
A month later a letter told her he joined the Federal Army. Julia prepared herself to wait. She was good at waiting; she could do this.
Adam was promoted to Lieutenant only weeks later. Ben was beyond himself with pride.
Julia kept waiting.
Her belly swelled with their growing child. She let Hoss and Joe feel the butterfly wings moving under her skin. And she kept waiting.
Adam’s letters told about cold and rain, about battles and canons, about death and decay.
She kept waiting.
The boy was born one sunny morning in May. Ben cried when he told her how much the baby resembled his father. Julia smiled and nodded and kept waiting.
Then there were no more letters. Hoss cried, Joe raged, Ben mourned silently, and Julia was strong and hopeful for them all. She kept waiting.
Christmas was subdued until a soldier came by with a tiny wooden horse Adam had carved for his son and a letter to the family. Then they sang ‘Joy to the World’, and they meant it. Julia kept waiting.
In summer the boy toddled round on the ranch yard, and Julia taught him to say ‘papa’. She told him everything about his father and how much daddy loved him. And together they kept waiting.
Then came winter, and a cold draft from north, and pneumonia. They buried the boy next to Marie’s grave near the lake. Ben was devastated. Julia choked back her tears and kept waiting.
And one fine Sunday morning Adam came back. Battle-weary, sore and tired but alive. Julia flew into his arms and he pulled her to his chest and held her tight. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I couldn’t be here.”
“It’s alright. I understand.”
Later, at night, Julia draped her warm blue scarf tightly around her shoulders. She placed the letter on the nightstand, glanced at her sleeping husband, and then she left.
Fifty days. It had been fifty days since she’d left. Fifty days spent searching for her. Fifty days of false hopes, of lost tracks, of permanent disappointments. Fifty days without so much as a trace of her. Fifty damned days of utter despair.
“Son, you can’t do this anymore. Look at yourself; you’re a mess.” Pa, the voice of reason. “Let’s get you home.”
One night. It had taken them only one night. She pressed a hand on her still flat belly and squeezed her eyes shut to keep the tears from spilling. She didn’t want to go through this alone. Not again.
But would going back provide her with the safety she was looking for? Or would he leave her again for something else of ‘greater good’?
“I can’t do this anymore…”
Fifty yards to the abyss and a tiny voice in her head: jump!
The moon was conjuring an eerie light on the white marble stones. Full moon, radiant in the reflection of the smooth surface of the lake, bright and lustrous and yet never vigorous enough to chase away the eternal darkness his soul generated.
Adam read the inscriptions of the epitaphs for what must have been the thousandth time.
“Sleep, our little one, sleep… dearly beloved infant” His child. His son. The boy he’d never known. How could the loss of someone of whom he had no memories of cut so deep? His fingers skimmed over the dark grey letters. “Our little one”. He was grateful Julia had included him.
He could picture her choosing the words, choosing the stone, talking to the stonecutter about the engraving. He couldn’t picture her grieving for their child. Couldn’t picture her breaking down with the pain. He had never seen her devastated. His Julia would for ever be a woman full of life and laughter, clever and mischievous and glowing, oh so glowing, brighter even than the sun. The moment she had lost her radiance, he hadn’t been there, and he would condemn himself for this for the rest of his life.
His Julia, a memory. At least a memory.
Adam forced himself to read on. “Beloved wife… devoted mother” He closed his eyes. So much pain behind these simple words. Words that could never give anyone the credit she deserved. Were there words in this world that could express how it felt to lose someone so dearly-loved?
Voices. Far away voices, coming nearer.
“Ma’am, are you alright?”
Do I look alright? So it was possible to roll eyes under closed lids.
“I don’t know, found her like this over at the cliff. Must have fainted or somethin’. She was lucky she didn’t fall down.”
Down? No. No, no, not down. She remembered. Jump! So tempting. But – no.
“Ma’am, can you hear me? I’m Doctor Maynard, you’re at my office. Can you tell me who you are?”
Dizziness and the sudden urge to—
“Get a bowl, quick!”
He startled. Pa. Of course Pa would know to find him here.
“How did you do it, Pa? How did you manage to cope with—” He indicated Marie’s headstone.
“Adam, listen. Julia’s alright. Joe brought a telegram from Virginia City. She’s at Sacramento.”
“She’s at Sacramento, son. She wants you to get her.”
The moon was conjuring an eerie light on the white marble stones. Full moon, radiant in the reflection of the smooth surface of the lake, bright and lustrous.
“Pa, have you ever seen the moon shine so brightly?”
“Are you alright?”
“Are you sure? The coach’s jolting doesn’t bother you?”
“I am fine. The jolting doesn’t bother me more than it bothers you.” A short glance to the other occupants of the stage coach. Julia lowered her voice. “I’m not sick, Adam, I’m with child.”
“Well, this morning you seemed pretty sick to me.”
“Adam!” A mild scolding. And a faint smile. A smile. Finally.
Another glance at the elderly couple that wasn’t supposed to listen but that strained their ears not to miss a word. “It’s normal for pregnant women to be a bit under the weather in the morning. It was the same with—”
No, they didn’t talk about this. Not yet. Not when the hurt was still so raw. Not when there was so much more to sort out.
“It’ll pass in a few weeks. You’ll see,” she said. Gone was the smile. Back were the downcast eyes. Her fingers seemed to be the most interesting thing in the world right now. Her fingers and her wedding band.
Just how many times can a person twist a ring round her finger in one minute, Adam wondered. Round and round and round and round.
“Come here.” His arm sneaked around her waist, and he pulled her to his side. She hesitated for a split second, and then laid her head on his shoulder and, with a sigh, melted into him. This he had missed the most. “We’re in this together. What ever happens, we’re together.”
Adam yawned. The joggling of the stage coach had the passengers lulled into sleep. The elderly gentleman, lying back in his seat, silently snoring, his wife with her hands firmly clasped in her lap, slid into the other corner of the cabin, as far away as possible from her husband. And Julia, snuggled up to Adam’s side, pressing into him as if she wanted to crawl inside. He squeezed her even tighter, pressed his face into her hair and inhaled her scent: honey and summer flowers and something he couldn’t name but that was distinctively Julia. He closed his eyes and started to drift away.
Adam was jolted awake by the coach coming to an abrupt halt and the strangled cry of the driver. Instinctively he reached for his gun. In one swift motion he pushed Julia from his side and slid to the cabin’s door. But before he had any chance to get his weapon up and find a target a single shot rang out.
Burning pain soared through his side. He heard the high pitched scream of the elderly woman, a bellowed “Hold your fire, damned idiot!” from outside, and Julia’s terrified “No!”
And then his world folded into itself and was no more.
She looked beautiful in black. It accentuated her golden hair, set on fire by the light of the sinking sun. Like a halo, that was what Adam always had said.
Ben shook his head to get rid of the improper thoughts. He wasn’t supposed to think something like this. He wasn’t supposed to notice something like this. Not now, not when he was standing here in the cemetery, holding his daughter-in-law’s arm with a stabilizing hand. Not when he was lucky to at least have her here.
The posse had reached the stage coach just in time to save her from the prison escapees, her and the elderly couple. But the posse had been too late for the driver, and too late for Adam.
Ben looked at Julia’s pale face, at her red-rimmed eyes. She had refused to attend the burial but Ben had forced her to come. He had literally dragged her to the grave yard. He knew she hated him for that now, but later she would be grateful. She needed to come to terms with this. She needed to leave that dark, stifling room for a while. She needed fresh air, for herself and for the baby.
The baby. His grandchild. They had so feared for the unborn the first couple of days, when Julia didn’t want to eat or drink or sleep. When all she could keep doing was crying and vomiting and washing Adam’s blood from her hands over and over again, until her fingers were scrubbed raw and red and angry.
Ben had been surprised when she had let him take her hands one afternoon and work in some soothing balm. For a long time they had sat, Julia on the bedside, Ben opposite on a rocker, her hands in his lap, massaging and stroking her abused fingers, rubbing in the ointment, and talking to her, low and soothing. He had told her how happy he had been for his son for having found her and that Adam would want the baby to live. She had gazed at him intently, never saying a word. But that evening she had started to pick at the meals they provided her with.
The Reverend read the 23th psalm, and Ben felt Julia shivering under her black overcoat. At “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever,” he heard her stifling a sob. He reached out for her, pulled her in his embrace. She buried her face into his shoulder and he held her tight. They stood like this for the rest of the funeral.
When Ben led Julia from the cemetery the last strays of the sun let her hair glow red. Like a witch, flashed through his mind, a witch with a halo. He nearly laughed at this. Julia walked fast-paced beside him, eager to get back to that accursed dusky room as quickly as possible.
She looked beautiful in black. But Ben didn’t want to see her in that colour again. It wasn’t her colour. It was Adam’s colour, and Ben would have given his life to see his son walking beside him in his black work clothes only once again.
The meadow was cluttered with tiny yellow flowers. The grass was knee high, and it was easy to keep up with the tiny boy who tottered in front of him through the stems as if they where trees in a jungle. He reached out for the toddler, turned it to look at him – and to his utter horror the child was faceless.
The meadow changed to a calm blue sea, and he was on a clipper ship, and next to him stood a beautiful golden haired fairy. The fairy smiled at him and sang a lullaby for him. But then, when he reached out for her, she was gone before he could touch her, and the scenery changed again, and he was on a battleground.
He heard the thunder of cannons, and he ducked behind a boulder. All over sudden there was a rebel soldier who held a red hot poker in his hands. And while he wondered, why a soldier wouldn’t carry a gun but a poker, the man stabbed him into his right side. He cried out at the searing pain as he was poked again and again. Frantically he tried to fight the torment, yelling at the man to stop, please stop. And then his hands were caught and he couldn’t defend himself and he panicked and tossed and tried to get away from the pain and the capture.
Suddenly the pain subdued to a dull ache and he heard the voice of an angel.
“Shh, it’s alright. Don’t fight me. It won’t hurt anymore. I’m done.” A cool hand on his brow, a feather light touch, soothing, calming, loving. He tried to lean into it, to increase the contact.
“Adam?” The angel’s voice again. It kept the nightmarish images at bay, grounded him in a muted world of dull pain and much less bright pictures but also in a world of a clear and caring angel’s voice.
He desperately tried to say something to make the angel answer him. He would do anything to hear that voice again. But all he could manage was a faint cough. A faint cough that hurt fiercely. It made him wince. And even the wince hurt.
“Adam, are you with me?” There was excitement in the angel’s voice. Excitement and hope.
This time he achieved a grunt. He heard the ruffling of clothes and then his head was lifted by a tender hand and a glass was held to his lips.
“Come on, love, take a sip. This will do you good.”
He swallowed, and only for the angel’s sake he took a second sip even though the pain of it nearly made him faint.
“That’s it. That’s it, Adam. Very good.” The voice choked. “Can you… can you try and open your eyes for me?” The cool, soft hand stroked his face, lingered at his temple, cupped his cheek.
He leaned into the touch again. All he wanted to do was get back to sleep. He was so tired. Opening his eyes seemed to be too much an effort. But the angel had begged him. And somewhere in his befuddled mind he knew he had vowed never to let the angel down again. He gathered together every ounce of energy he had left and cracked his eyes open a narrow slit.
His vision was full of delighted angel’s face. Julia. All he needed, all he wanted. She was beaming. His glowing girl.
“Adam. You’re with me, aren’t you?” She captured his face in her hands and placed a chaste kiss on his forehead. “You’re back… you’re back for good…” Her voice cracked and he felt something wet falling onto his face. She wiped it off with her thumb. “You— you won’t leave me again, no?”
He tried to focus on her pleading face. “Hold…my…pr’m’se,” he managed to croak before he slid back into the beckoning arms of nothingness.
“I don’t understand. He was lucid the past few days.” Julia watched anxiously as the doctor was working on her husband. “He even managed some broth. Why is he so much worse now?”
The doctor gave her a brief glance and concentrated on his patient again. He cut off the soiled bandage around Adam’s waist, only to discover yellowish viscous fluids on raw angry red flesh.
He cringed. “Do you smell that?”
Julia, with her hand clasped in front of her mouth and nose, barely capable to suppress retching, only nodded. The biting, pungent smell was penetrating her senses, overpoweringly filling the whole room.
The doctor shook his head. “Sanies. Infection has set in once again. I’m sorry.”
“Well, do something. Clean it, do…something!” Her voice was shrill, her eyes wide and panicked. She knew.
“Mrs. Cartwright, there is nothing to be done. I told you before, gut wounds are tricky, not easy to treat, and almost always fatal.” He covered the wound with a clean cloth. “I’m sorry,” he repeated softly. “I’m really sorry.”
There’s nothing to be done. But…he promised. Nothing to be done. Nothing. But he promised. He promised. He promised.
The voices he heard were shrieking, piercing, penetrating. They reverberated in his head, growing louder, shriller, more urgent, until they cumulated into one single, everlasting scream. Was this the end? Was this his eternity? No. It couldn’t be. It shouldn’t be.
There was darkness, pain, and these voices. Nothing else. Death wasn’t supposed to be like this. Eternity wasn’t. He had expected light and warmth and quiet tender sounds.
There’s nothing to be done. But he promised. A cacophony of screams, word, sounds, meaningless and accusatory, disturbing and indifferent, out of order and wrong, wrong, wrong. Nothing. Promised. Nothing. Promised. Nothing. But. But. But!
“No.” His own voice, weak, wasted, spent, breathless, barely audible through the screeching roar in his ears.
“Adam?” Clear. Soft, warm, clear. Silent sounds that smoothed down the screams. Say more.
“You don’t have to keep your promise if you can’t.” A voice like soft hands that smoothed a wrinkled skirt. Smooth me.
“I let you go.” Stroking fingers, soft like the voice, on his face.
And then quiet. Finally. No more screams, no more words, no more sounds. Just silence. And those smoothing hands.
I want to stay here.
“It’s a miracle.”
She beamed. “It is, isn’t it?”
“I’ve never seen something like this, Mrs. Cartwright. In all my years as a doctor, I haven’t seen anyone recover from injuries like this.”
“He promised, doctor. I told you, he promised.”
“Do you smell that?”
“Here, on her head. It smells as if she’s getting sour.”
“Oh, that. That’s normal baby-smell, Adam. Cradle cap.”
“So my daughter won’t smell like turned milk for the rest of her life?”
“No, of course not. You know, you are supposed to like that smell, don’t you?”
“Do I? Well, I could get used to it, I guess. But, dear God, I will never get used to…do you smell that?”
“Oh, give her to me already!” She sent him a mocking glare and, smiling, took the baby.
Adam watched her taking care of the mess. His wife, his daughter, his family.
Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family. ~Anthony Brandt
A/N: With many thanks to Sklamb, for the wonderful beta.