Last week, I got wind of a short story contest Kellyn Roth is hosting to celebrate reaching 1k followers and decided to participate! If you’d like to do it too, the deadline/rules are here.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 3, 1863 — Her feet hurt. Her back ached. And her stomach recoiled from the sights and smells she should have been used to by now, yet not once did Alice stop. She darted from one fallen soldier to the next, helping where she could and leaving when she couldn’t.
As she did so, she searched for her fiancé, whose regiment she had been traveling with for the past year. She asked every survivor she came across if they had seen Captain Ezekiel Matthews, and each time, the answer was a regretful no or shake of the head.
By the time night had fully set, her honey blonde hair was completely loose, falling onto her shoulders, and her emerald green eyes had started to sting with tears. She let them fall as memories of a lanky, mischievous boy who was always too tall for his clothes, his blue-gray eyes twinkling with mirth and unruly light brown hair falling in his face, penetrated her mind.
Had her love, who was also her oldest and dearest friend, indeed become one of the many who had died in the past three days?
She hoped not. She prayed it was not so. Yet, later that night, as she followed an older nurse through a home that had been turned into a makeshift hospital with a canteen in her hands for anyone who called for water, those prayers dwindled.
“Miss Smith!” Mrs. Reynolds grabbed her arm and jerked her forward, causing her to stumble in the process. She quickly managed to right herself, clutching the canteen to her chest. Mrs. Reynolds pointed to one of the men lying on the floor and added, “He’s been asking for water!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alice said. She tried to make her voice sound steady, but it still held a slight tremor. “I’m sorry.”
The other woman left, while Alice lingered for another few seconds to gather her bearings before moving towards the wounded man. She had barely taken two steps when she caught her first full glimpse of his bloodied, yet familiar, face.
“Zeke!” Without another thought, she dropped to her knees beside him and gently raised his head so he wouldn’t choke on the water she gave him.
She expected him to acknowledge her after he finished, but he didn’t. His eyelids fluttered and though his gaze met hers, no glimmer of recognition shone in his eyes.
“Zeke?” She whispered. Fear crept into her voice. Did he not remember her?
After another moment of waiting to hear him speak, his eyes slid shut as he fell into what would soon be a deep, restless sleep.
By the week’s end, he’d gained a fever from an infected wound on top of the pain he already suffered from it.
Day after day, night after night, Alice cared for him, keeping vigil whenever she could. She only left when needed or when she was commanded to help with other wounded men.
Other men who were faring far better than the one she loved.
“Why aren’t you giving up on him already?” Mrs. Reynolds said one day while she watched Alice care for Ezekiel. “He’s grown worse. He’s not going to make it. You should spend your time caring for the men who will.”
“You don’t know Ezekiel Matthews,” Alice said, her voice sharper than she’d intended. “He’s strong-“
“This war has taken many strong men, including my own husband and sons.” Mrs. Reynolds told her in a slightly softer tone than usual. Then without another word, she turned and marched off.
Alice turned back to Ezekiel, who had been weaving in and out of consciousness for the past week and a half since the battle. Despite that, even when he was conscious, he still didn’t acknowledge her.
She took his hand and pressed the back of it to her cheek, shutting her eyes as another countless tear slipped down her face. Please, Lord, she prayed. Please.
Another sleepless night turned to another morning. Morning turned to afternoon, afternoon to evening, and evening back to the night, signaling the end of another day.
Alice collapsed on her knees beside Ezekiel once again and leaned her back against the wall. Perhaps Mrs. Reynolds was right. Perhaps she would be burying him by the end of this week.
With one hand clasping his, the other came up to touch the locket he’d given her when they’d gotten engaged. She opened it to see the one photograph she had of him in there, with one of her on the other side.
Why had this war come in their lifetime? Why couldn’t it have come before or after? Why couldn’t they still be children, running around the forest and playing in the creek?
She closed the locket and then, unable to fight back the tears and the way her eyes drooped with exhaustion, she cried herself to sleep.
A finger tapped her nose. She twitched it, not bothering to open her eyes and see who the person was. The finger tapped her nose again and as she blinked away the last remnants of sleep, the finger turned into a hand that gently cupped her cheek.
She looked down and a wide smile appeared on her face for the first time in days. Blue-gray eyes, free of fever, looked back up at her.
“Zeke!” It came out as a breathless whisper, right as Mrs. Reynolds walked by and caught Alice’s attention. She almost wanted to gloat but restrained herself. Cheeks turning red with shame for even thinking of it, she turned back to Ezekiel.
He said something, but his voice was so quiet, she had to lean down to hear him. “Water?” She asked. He nodded and she reached for the canteen. Like she had done so many times already in the almost two weeks that had passed, she raised his head so he wouldn’t choke.
After he finished, she helped him lie back down. “Ezekiel Matthews,” she started, taking his hand again. “Don’t scare me like that.”
He gave her a small, weak smile. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, slightly louder this time. The smile turned slightly mischievous. “If you…hadn’t noticed already…I joined the army.”
©H.S. Kylian 2018