I have no idea what the story is about. It's a spur of the moment kind of thing, something I've never done before and never thought I'd do. But it's fun.
Characters: Major Crossroad, Christopher Walker, Alistair Duncan Marlborough, Roderick Blaine.
Characters: Major Crossroad, Christopher Walker, Alistair Duncan Marlborough, Roderick Blaine.
“We have a long day ahead of us,” Crossroad says, or rather exhales the words, looking at his team and trying hard to imagine them being something other than they are – children on their first mission, shaking with excitement and fear, but staring straight ahead, faces like set in stone, and waiting for him to give the order.
“Let’s go, boys.”
The sun is barely above the curved edges of the hills when they begin their march.
Christopher Walker is only twelve years old when his father sends him to the camp.
Damien Walker carries his son’s backpack all the way to the bus, despite Christopher’s protests (I can do it, Dad, really, so what if it’s heavier than me, what will the other boys say, they’ll think I’m a weakling, come on). The man in the military uniform gives them a few minutes to say their goodbyes, and Christopher says “okay, bye Dad, see you in a few months I guess” and turns around to get on the bus and leave, but his father stops him – puts a hand on his shoulder, turns him around and hugs him. Christopher flails a little (Dad, this is embarrassing), but freezes when his father says, in a voice so quiet it’s barely above a whisper, “I love you, Chris. Remember this.”
There’s something in the way his father says those words that makes Christopher’s blood run cold. He thinks it’s just because he’s nervous (he’s never been to summer camp before) and he ignores that tiny voice in the back of his head that says it’s more than that and you know it.
He pats his father on the back, says “Dad, I’m only going to summer camp, I’ll be back in September”, but even as he says those words, he knows he’s never going to see his father again. He pushes those thoughts aside, pushes out of his father’s arms and gets on the bus. He waves at his father as the bus drives off and tries not to feel like he’s leaving everything he’s ever known behind.
Even though he is.
The sun had long since set but the small group keeps walking through the canyon, Major Crossroad and two other boys lighting the path and keeping an eye out for any suspicious movement. The road is clear; the sky above them, bruise-purple and sprinkled with stars is even clearer.
They stop at a junction and set camp for the night. The Major takes the first watch and the boys huddle close to each other and fall asleep, wrapped in blankets, with makeshift pillows under their heads.
Four hours later, Major Crossroad wakes them up. “We have to go. Now.”
No one asks questions, no one complains about being woken up like that. They gather their stuff, put out the fire, bury the remains of the last night’s meal and head north, the Major leading the way through the canyon maze.
Neither of them knows what’s after them – Crossroad hasn’t said a word about it – but they trust the Major with their lives.
It’s not like they have any other choice. But they don’t think about that; there’s no time to think, there’s barely enough time to run before whatever is after them gets too close.
“Alistair Duncan Marlborough,” Miss Valentine says, giving the military man a skeptical look. “Are you certain it’s him you want, sir? He is a bit of a miscreant, not exactly fit for army duty.”
“Kid has a problem with authority, am I right?” the Major asks with a knowing smile. The woman shakes her head slightly.
“He has a problem with everything, sir,” she replies. “There are other boys here, sir, and they are more suitable for this kind of occupation than Mr. Marlborough. Some of them have even expressed their interest in pursuing a career in the Army.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I know. I read the letters they sent, and they’re more than welcome to join the training camp. But I specifically asked for Duncan Marlborough to be part of the first group, and all I need is your signature.”
Miss Valentine looks at the man in front of her with something like suspicion in her eyes. She has been the head of this orphanage for nearly thirty years, and in all that time, she has never had anyone as troublesome as Duncan Marlborough in her care. The boy is barely in his teens, but the local authorities already know him well. She had to drive to the police station to pick him up on more occasions that she’d like to remember, and each time the crime had been worse than the last. No farther than two days ago, Duncan stabbed a man in the stomach and stole his wallet. He was found at the local arcade a few hours later, playing a video game with the stolen money. He didn’t even put up a fight when the policemen arrested him; he said the game had gotten boring anyway.
In all truth, Miss Valentine is looking forward to seeing Duncan go, and the prospect of him being in the care of the Army where his rebellious temper could be curbed is an appealing one, but why would anyone want someone as troublesome as Duncan around? She knows for a fact that the Army has to churn out ridiculous amounts of money to train the new recruits, and spending that kind of money on someone like Duncan seems rather counterproductive.
Why would they want him, when he is so difficult to control? Maybe they have their methods of taming even the wildest of spirits, but wouldn’t it be easier if they didn’t have to apply them? The army needs soldiers – lots of them and fast. This doesn’t make much sense.
“Well, Ma’am, do I have your permission or not?” the Major asks, startling Miss Valentine out of her reverie.
“Ah, yes. Yes, of course.” She signs the papers with a trembling hand and gives them to the Major, who looks them over once, nods and tucks them in the manila folder under his arm. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you about Duncan, sir.”
“You have nothing to worry about, Ma’am. We can handle him. He’ll be in good hands,” the Major says. “Good day, Ma’am.” He salutes her and leaves the office.
Miss Valentine sits back down in her chair, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and takes a sip of her tea. She made the right decision, she tells herself. She had to have made the right decision. Duncan will be better off at the military camp and everyone in town will be better off without him around.
But she can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong. She can’t shake the feeling that she just signed someone’s death sentence.
At the dawn of the fifth day, the small platoon led by Major Crossroad reaches a town. The boys all cheer at the sight of the buildings, talking loudly and excitedly about finally sleeping in a bed, with a roof above their heads, but one gesture from the Major shuts them up.
“Be on the lookout, boys. Something’s not right here.”
The town greets them with austere silence and stillness. The wind stirs up the dust on the road and pushes tumbleweeds across the street, but other than that, nothing else is moving.
It’s like a ghost town.
The Major gestures to the boys to follow him and they all walk into what seems to be the saloon. The room is a mess of broken furniture and glass. There’s an old piano in a corner of the room. The light filtering in through the cracks in the blinds falls on its lacquered surface, making it look as though it’s covered in a golden sheen.
The piano is the only thing in the room not damaged in any way. Everything else is broken, destroyed and covered with dust, but the piano shines like a jewel. There’s not a speck of dirt on it, as though it had only been brought here recently.
The Major takes a few steps towards it, but stops halfway and looks behind him. The only foot marks on the thick layer of dust covering the floor are his.
One of the boys makes a move to come closer, but the Major stops him.
The piano is only a few paces away. The Major tightens his grip on the gun and takes the final few steps to the piano.
The boys at the door all stop their breaths when the Major reaches out and touches the lacquered surface of the piano.
Nothing happens. The Major moves his hand across the surface of the lid, then down to the fall and lifts it. The keys shine in the sun, porcelain white and onyx black, a stark contrast with the calm brown of the piano frame.
The Major lowers his gun and breathes out a sigh of relief. There is still something hanging in the air, something heavy and maybe a little menacing, but some of the tension has worn off. He turns and looks at the boys waiting with bated breaths at the door and waves at them to come over. “It’s okay, boys, coast is clear.”
They hurry inside, all wanting to be the first to get to the man by the piano. The Major laughs at their enthusiasm, but his laughter dies out and everyone freezes on their spot when the piano starts playing.
The Major turns around slowly and takes a few steps back, staring at the piano, gun trained on it. The keys dip and rise as though someone is there, sitting on the stool and playing.
The boys gather around the Major, back to back, guns out and fingers on the trigger. The Major looks around the room, but everything is still. There’s no sign that anyone else but them is in there, yet the piano keeps playing.
“Out,” he orders and the boys retreat step by step, mindful of everything around them. The open space outside doesn’t make them feel any safer; they stop in the middle of the road, still back to back and glance at the Major.
“Orders, sir,” one of them whispers.
“We leave,” the Major replies through gritted teeth and leads the boys out of town.
“I don’t think you understand, Roderick,” Graham Blaine says gravely, hands on his son’s shoulders. “This isn’t a request, son – it’s an obligation. You have a duty to your country and to your people.”
The young man shakes his father’s hands off and narrows his eyes. “Think about it, Father,” he says, voice calm but with an undertone of anger to it. “I’m your only heir. If I die out there, who will—“
“Don’t bury me while I’m still breathing, son,” Blaine replies with just the hint of amusement in his voice, but his expression turns somber the next moment. “You have to do this, Roderick. No one will follow you if you don’t give them a reason to, and what better way to do that than show them that you’re willing to risk your life for the freedom and well-being of your country?”
Roderick sighs, but there is no sign of resignation in his eyes. “I am not a coward, Father. I am afraid of dying, I have to admit this, but I’m more afraid of leaving you here, alone and unprotected.”
Blaine’s laughter catches the young man by surprise. “My son,” the old man says, still smiling and patting his child on the shoulder, “if that is your only concern, then let me tell you that you have absolutely no reason to fear for my safety. I am well guarded; no one will even think of looking for me here, not when they already think I’m dead. The regent is taking care of all the public affairs until this war is over, and when you come back, you’ll take his place as it is your birthright. But you have to set a good example first, my son. The people are tired of paper tigers; they want a leader who can command respect from them, and I know you can be that leader.”
“Father . . . “ Roderick sighs and shakes his head. “Your faith in the Admiral is misplaced, and I’m sorry I won’t be able to be here for you when he shows his true colors. But please,” and he grabs his father’s shoulders and looks him in the eye, “please, in the name of the love you have for me and this country; please do not let the Admiral chase away your men. Don’t trust him with your life, Father. Promise me that.”
King Blaine smiles at his son and nods. “I promise, Roderick. I’ll promise you anything you want, but you have to promise me something in return.”
“I don’t have to promise you that, Father; it’s my duty, like you said. I’m going to war.”
The King’s smile fades a little. “No, that’s not it,” he says. “I want you to promise me that you’ll come back.”
“There’s a farm right over that hill,” the Major says, eyes glued to the map. One of the boys holds the flashlight over the map and everyone else is gathered around the Major, waiting for him to give his next orders. “We’ll stop there to contact home base and tell them we’re on our way. Corporal!”
“What if they don’t have a telephone?” one of his team, a timid looking young man still in his teens interrupts him. He pushes his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and looks away when the Major turns to glare at him.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” the Major replies sternly, then turns his attention to the one he called for earlier. “We’ll split in two groups – one will stay here, and one will go to the farm. We can’t afford to make any mistakes, boys,” he raises his voice slightly, noticing that some of the boys were shaking their heads and mumbling something that was undoubtedly protests. “We have something very valuable with us, and if we run into hostiles at the farm, our mission – and the safety of this country – are both compromised.”
That seems to shut the boys up. The Major turns back to the map and waves for the Corporal to come closer. When the young man sits down next to him, the Major begins explaining his plan.
“I don’t think this was such a good idea,” Christopher says, words coming out muffled from under the collar of his military vest. “What if we are the ones ambushed? We don’t know this region very well and we didn’t have enough time to sweep it. There could be an entire regiment hiding around here and we wouldn’t even see them until it’s too late.”
“Oh for the love of-!” Alistair grabs the nearest object he can find – which is the coat he had rolled up to use for a pillow – and throws it at Christopher. “If you don’t shut your mouth, kid,” he warns, glaring viciously at the younger boy, “the next thing I send flying at your head is going to be a fucking knife.” He flops back down on the dirt and rolls onto his side, muttering angrily to himself. He doesn’t even bother asking for his coat back.
Christopher dusts off Alistair’s coat, rolls it and crawls to where the older boy is trying to sleep. “Um, here,” he says, holding out the rolled up coat.
“Oh for the love of fuck, get lost already, runt!” Alistair yells. Christopher takes a few startled steps backwards but the ever grouchy Alistair stops him. “Give me back my fucking coat first, moron.”
“Marlborough,” a voice calls from the other side of the fire and a few moments later, a tall young man who seems to be the oldest of the three steps out of the shadows. “Watch your temper.”
Alistair narrows his eyes at the newcomer, forgetting all about Christopher and the coat. “Or what?” he dares him.
If Marlborough’s behavior annoys him, the young man doesn’t let it show. “There is no or what, Marlborough,” he replies, completely composed and in control. “You will mind your manners in the future.”
Alistair doesn’t let it go. “Is that an order, Corporal?” he sneers. “Because I think I already told you where to shove those, and I’d really hate having to repeat myself.”
The Corporal lets out a sigh and narrows his eyes ever so slightly – the only sign that his patience is wearing thin. He takes the rolled up coat that Christopher is at this point practically clinging to and throws it at Alistair. “There, you have your coat; now sleep.” And before Alistair can retort, he grabs Christopher’s arm and drags him back to his spot. “You sleep too,” he tells him. “I’ll take the first watch.”
Christopher watches the young Corporal take his seat next to the fire with the gun in his lap and settling in for the long haul. Nights were usually colder here, and winter was approaching fast. Christopher pulls the collar of his vest higher, wraps his arms around himself and closes his eyes.