When the man walked in, Mira took a long look at the armor he wore and sighed slowly. There was no way that he, a soldier of the Imperial Guard, would fail to notice what she was doing, fail to notice that she didn’t belong here. She was the right age to fit in among the young princesses and their entourage, but she was wrong. Too skinny, too dirty, too uneducated. In short, a peasant. But Mira could hope that he wouldn’t notice. The princesses hadn’t, after all. Maybe she would be safe.
The other girls were giggling now, discussing a feast and dresses. All the while, Mira did her best to eat the light tea and cakes like one who wasn’t starving. She had expected the guard to say something by now, to cast her out of the palace. Instead, he had carefully made sure she had gotten slightly more food and a chance to clean up before sitting down at the table.
As the evening wore on, Mira waited for the other shoe to drop. It had to. Nice things like this didn’t happen for people like her. She would be fined, which she couldn’t pay. Or imprisoned. Or worse. The other girls were heading back to family estates and she would head back to her own street corner to sleep. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and look up into the face of that man, the Imperial Guard.
“Come on, Mira”
Mira tensed up, ready to run. Then he smiled.
“It was nice of you to wait while the other girls went home” He glanced around and gestured, showing that no one else was around. “But you should get cleaned up and ready for bed.”
As he led her through the back passages of the palace, he paused.
“Tell me the truth, Mira. You’re an orphan, yes?”
She nodded slowly.
“From the war or the plague?”
He nodded again.
“If anyone asks, you’re my daughter. They know I had…” He paused. “The plague. It was as bad here as it was in the city, I promise. And if you’re clever enough to sneak in here, then I think you deserve something for it. You’re also the same age my girl would have been… So, to my mind, the gods are giving us both something back. You a home, and me a child.”
She blinked, uncertain. Then she smiled.
“Will I always get to play with the other girls like that?”
“Until they’re young ladies. I’m afraid then they’ll get conceited and think they’re better than a mere soldier’s daughter.”
Alright, I’ll admit it. I have no idea what I’m doing here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the cause. I made my sign myself after a late night craft store run. The cashier was so funny, asking if we had a project for school.
“No, ma’am, we’re actively participating in our democracy.”
That had been my best friend’s flippant response. I’d seen this kind of thing on TV and I was scared. They kept saying it would be fine though. Somehow, I don’t think they really understood.
Now, I was trying not to cry as I heard shouting and loud bangs that sounded a lot like explosives to my ears. That was when he appeared out of the smoke. A tall man with dark hair cut military short. He was wearing wraparound shades that obscured his eyes, a bandanna over the lower half of his face, and a tight t-shirt with a Spartan logo on it. He grabbed my arm and hauled me up.
“Come on, kid. How’re you doing?”
I tried to speak and started coughing. He cursed in a language I didn’t understand and handed me a bottle and a bandanna.
“Swish and spit. Wet the bandanna and hold it over your mouth. Got me, kid?”
I nodded once, uncertain. We both heard the sound that caught his attention then. It was like a loud pop and then something hissing. I didn’t think, I just moved. Doing as he’d told me, I kept the bandanna over my mouth as I stayed low hoping this stuff worked like smoke. He grabbed my arm and pointed, making signs I’d never seen. I could follow it though. Grab the woman near us and follow him.
He led us up a side street where there were a few people working on a sort of street triage. He nodded to them, clearly knowing each and every one of them. My eyes were burning and tears streamed down my face. The woman we’d helped out was worse off though. Another woman grabbed a bottle of something and was talking quietly to her, saying she was here to help. Not to worry a bit.
When my eyes were clear, I started helping. He coached me, teaching me things I never thought I would learn. I learned more about how medicine really works than I ever had before. And not gentle, kind, sterile medicine. This was rough and we could only do our best. Sometimes, I wondered what he was doing here. He was a soldier. He had to be. But he just laughed and said he fought in these trenches now, in this new kind of war for liberty. If he was a general, I think I would follow him to the ends of the earth.
“Come on, kid. You and me, we’ve got more people to help.”
She stood on the bridge, looking forward. Her armor was hanging heavily on her shoulders now, blood streaking her face. Far below, she could see the water raging and felt a kinship with it as it smashed against the rocks. Somewhere far away, somewhere held close in her mind and her memory, there was a town and a home and a man. Reaching into a pouch stained with dirt and blood, she produced a small metal disc. Held within was a picture, a tiny painted portrait of a man and a child. That was her home, her heart, and as she took a shaky breath and winced, she knew she wouldn’t be making it back. The painting slipped from her fingers, falling to the water far below.
Today was one of the stories no one ever tells because there are none who would believe save for those who bore witness. We were pressed by the rebel forces, penned down behind our meager fortifications of fallen trees and farmer’s fences. Shots rang out on all sides and a haze filled the air. That was when I saw the figures step in to fill out our ranks. They were clad in blue, same as my own Massachusetts regiment, but these men were a breed apart. The man beside me put a hand on my shoulder and grinned at my surprise, for he was my own great-grandfather, decades gone to his rest. Bolstered by the numbers of this greatest generation of soldiers, we rallied. I swear to you, the sound of horses was in our infantry charge and I saw a tall man astride a white horse in the vanguard, his saber raised high. The rebels broke and ran, leaving the day to us. But none will ever believe, I fear. Even now as I commit it to paper and ink, it sounds like a flight of fancy. But I will never forget.
He didn’t know what the package sitting in his trunk was and he didn’t need to know. Knowing was dangerous. Knowing made you suspicious when you made it to border checkpoints. Certainly, you couldn’t be too calm when you crossed or the border guards would notice. They always did. Just the right amount of innocence mixed with caution. That was the ticket. Everyone was doing something wrong, something forbidden. Just don’t look like you’re doing something big. Rolling down his window, he saluted the guards and then put his hands both back on the wheel.
“Anything to declare?”
The guard leaned in, a frown on her face but her expression otherwise masked by mirrored sunglasses.
“Trying to be a smart alec?”
“No, sir. Uh…Ma’am.”
She looked into the back seat and then nodded.
“Move on through.”
Relieved, he drove past the checkpoint. Now his curiosity could be piqued, he could pull off in the no man’s land and find out what he was carrying. After all, the true destination would be on the package.
He pulled off onto a side road and drove for a bit longer before he got out and opened the trunk. A small girl blinked up at him, her brown eyes solemn.
“Are we there, Mister?”
“What do we do?”
His voice was quiet, barely a whisper tucked in at my side. Looking down, I could see that his whole body was shaking. Or was it mine? We were pressed so tightly in that darkness that it was hard to tell.
“We’ll be alright, Danny, I promise. Just…just trust me.”
It was a lie. The look in his eyes, though, the way they shone. He believed me. That was the worst part of it. He believed me. I put an arm around the little boy’s shoulders and tried to think. 500 yards, a barbed wire fence, two guard towers with searchlights, and guard patrols. That was assuming they didn’t have the horrors out tonight. My promise weighed heavily on my heart as I stood.
“Come on, see that window? I’m going to hoist you up.”
We’d never make it. It was too far, we were too weak, and he was too small. They would see him, they would see me. And even if we made it, what then? I heard a sound and grabbed his arm. Crunching. Something was crunching nearby. Almost like something moving over gravel. Offering up a silent prayer to whoever might be listening, I hung on the window ledge and looked out. The outer perimeter was on fire and a line of tanks was bearing down. It was impossible and yet there it was. Freedom.
It was their song. It had been playing on the radio when he’d sat down at the counter in the diner for the first time and she’d leaned over to ask him what he’d have. Of course, neither of them remembered that. What they both remembered was it playing on another radio on another night when the pair sat in his car down by the river and watched the stars.
“Don’t worry, give it a few months and we’ll have licked those Krauts. I’ll be home for Christmas.”
“I promise. We’ll be right back here, Trace. Lookin’ out at those same stars.”
It was playing on the radio again when the news bulletin broke in to tell the world that the Allies were on the march. And again when she was up with the sun, to meet the sickness which had plagued her mornings. When she got her best friend to take her to the hospital, the song was ending just as they arrived. When their son was born, she sang the song to him in hushed tones, telling the newborn babe that soon he’d get to meet his papa.
“He’ll be home for Christmas, he promised.”
When the telegram came, the radio was as silent as the tears on her face.