by Atsushi Saiki (篤し再起)
September 19, 1918
I’ve never been one able to spin words – Ma’s always said my writing was akin to a bull in a tea shop, eating dainties on china – but I’ll do my best to make this bearable. Mary is doing well, the town’s been busy. Everyone’s doing something for the war effort, even the women have gone off to the factories to sew their nylons into planes or something. But since everyone else is too busy, taking care of Mary has fallen to me. Robert’s good at managing the farm, and I manage the finances – I’ve found out I’m actually good with numbers. I know; it surprised me too.
Pa started up with his writing again and he seems at his most restless when it rains, like he always has. I’ve told you how his bum leg bothers him when it’s wet, but now the irritation just seems to fuel his passion. He writes to newspapers, about the war effort and what the womenfolk are doing themselves – he wrote about you, too, once. That one got printed and the paper said they hoped for more from Pa – I saved you the clipping, and I’m keeping it for you when you get back. About myself… I never change, but you knew that. If I was better with this letter writing business, I could write you something you’d be able to read over and over again, but I’ll just be glad if you don’t wind up throwing this in the trash. Heck, I bet this letter is boring you already. Like I said, I’ve never been good with my words: that was you.
I’m not going to ask about the war. If you want to tell me, you can, if it would make it better. Just… don’t die, Joe. I’m not sure how I’d feel if you were gone – I mean, I know you’re gone now, but that’s different since I know you’re still alive, you just aren’t with me, if that makes any sense. If you die there, I’ll have to bring you back to life and kill you again, myself, just for doing that to me.
PS. Even Mary’s helping with the war effort, if you’ll believe it. She waters the victory garden we planted. I think we might even have a respectable bunch of cabbage by spring.
We’d made a good amount in the previous year, like everyone else in the industry. But buying a tractor was out of the question and what with everyone else buying them, and crop prices dropping, it looked like we might have to sell the farm. I chewed on my lip, going over the ledger again: I’d have to talk about this with Bob. With a sigh, I pulled my glasses off and let my head thump against the desk.
A small hand tugged at my wrist and a blur of ginger hair bobbed up and down in my sight, under my elbow. Even though I could barely see a hand span in front of my face without my glasses on, I knew it was Mary. “Papa, wake up,” said a high voice, chubby fingers clutching impatiently.
One day I was going to have to explain to Mary that I wasn’t really her papa, but that would come later. Giving into her demand, I stood and swung her up onto my hip. “How are you today, Carrot?” I asked her, ruffling the ragged halo of curls that circled her head.
Mary giggled. “‘Scream, Papa. I want ‘scream.”
“Ice cream, huh?” The way things were, milk wasn’t moving and the cows’d produced a lot that year. “Well, we’ll need to go to the store. Think you’re up to that, baby girl?”
A vigorous nod sent ginger curls bobbing. “We’re gonna see Gemma?” She squirmed excitedly – she really did love my Ma. Then again, Ma did spoil her too. More than me, even. “Is Sepp come too?” My mood immediately plummeted. Just the mention of his name did that to me.
Sepp was the farmhand Bob had hired earlier that year. He reminded me too much of my friend – the real owner of the farm. I ignored the sick feeling in my stomach and smiled at Mary. “Sure thing, let’s just go get him.”
“Piggy, piggy!” Mary crowed, pulling at my hair. I knew I was spoiling her, but how could I not?
“All aboard!” I responded, letting her clamber onto my back. As we stomped around the house, I was busy trying to think of a way to get out of asking Sepp to come with us. Sure, Mary had asked me, but as much as I loved her, I really didn’t like Sepp. He’d always been polite to me, but he was just a reminder of memories I’d rather have forgotten. I was in luck: Sepp was in town already.
“No Sepp?” Mary said. Damn but the look on her face about broke my heart even without my glasses. Her lower lip trembled.
“Sorry short stuff,” Bob said, grimacing. Obviously I wasn’t the only one loathe to do anything to make Maryanne unhappy. “Look, if he gets finished before you get back, I’ll send him back, but I can’t guarantee he’ll catch up to you.”
That appeased the little princess and she happily went back to tugging my hair.
“Hey, Chuck,” Bob called after us.
He jogged up. “I forgot to tell you. Town’s had some ‘leggers around lately. Might wanna watch out for that.”
Brushing aside hair displaced by Mary’s attentions, I nodded. She giggled. “Gotcha.” I wasn’t an easy target, but if Mary was with me when things got hairy, it’d go south fast. A strange look flitted across Bob’s face. At least, that’s what I got from the way the blob that was his face contorted. “What is it?”
His brow furrowed. “Nothing, just- nothing.” He shook his head like a horse, and shrugged. “Get on, at this rate you’ll have to leave Mary at your Ma’s.” He slapped me on the back and walked back to the stable.
“Gemma?” Mary chirruped.
“Yeah, we’re going to see Grandma,” I responded, and pulled her down from my shoulders. “You gotta walk for a while.”
“Gemma!” was the very enthusiastic gurgle I got in return. Well, at least it was good to know she was – somewhat – easily pleased. She was a right ball of energy, zipping from one side to the other, after dust motes or dragonflies; I didn’t know what.
Despite the warm, cheery weather and the overjoyed crows coming from Mary, I couldn’t help but frown. The farm was going belly up fast – it hadn’t started out too well in the first place, but during the war it looked like it’d do all right. However, the gambling debts had taken a larger toll than we knew. I didn’t want to sell the farm. It wasn’t even mine.
See, my friend Joe, Bob’s brother, left it in my care. Bob – Robert was his given name – had only been fifteen when Joe got drafted, so he couldn’t legally take care of the place. And Mary.
Absentmindedly, I pulled her back from a particularly large thicket of brambles.
She wasn’t my kid. She wasn’t Joe’s kid, she wasn’t Bob’s kid. She was their ma’s kid; their half sister. The thing was, their ma went haring off with some younger man from a different town and their pa went to the drink and started gambling. My guess is that her lover got drafted and she found herself without a place to stay. When she came back, the farm was barely afloat; I never met her, Bob and Joe’s pa threw her out, would’ve done the same to Mary if Bob hadn’t protected her. My family took them in, at least until it was found out that their pa had cut town, dodging the draft.
And Joe got the letter himself, a few months later. Steering my thoughts away from dangerous waters, I tugged Mary in the direction of my parent’s house – it was attached to the general store, which they ran.
The store was empty by the time we got there. “Ma?” I called out. I didn’t get an answer. Dread settled in my stomach. “Mary, stay very quiet,” I murmured, pressing a finger to my lips to shush her. She mimicked me, eyes wide.
Something behind the door that lead into the store crashed. Torn between leaving Mary there to check it out and staying just in case, to protect her, I hesitated.
Then the door behind the counter opened.
“Sepp-Sepp!” Mary cried, and flung herself at Sepp. I gaped. Sepp looked just about as surprised as I was, frozen in the doorway. Even inside he was wearing his dratted hat and kerchief.
I grabbed Mary back. “What are you doing here?” I growled at Sepp.
“I apologize,” he said. God, he even sounded like Joe. “I was just-”
“Leaving,” I interrupted him, not bothering to listen to his explanation. Not wanting to listen to his voice. “Bob probably needs you at the farm.” An outright lie, one I’d get caught in, and I knew it. Damn, but I had no tolerance for him.
Sepp didn’t say anything.
Then my ma peered up at me from under his arm. “Charlie, where are your manners?” She scolded.
I glared at her. “I dunno, Ma, where’re yours? You’re the one snooping,” I snapped. I’d never have spoken to my Ma that way if he wasn’t there – he just… I mean, I’d never even seen his face. He always kept it covered with that stupid hat and kerchief, and most of the time I didn’t wear my glasses. The glass was just too expensive to replace to bother wearing them when I didn’t need to.
“Boy-” my Ma started.
Sepp cut her off with a hand on her shoulder. “I have to leave anyway.”
Heat rose to my cheeks. He always had to be the reasonable one. And when the hell did he find the time to get so familiar with my Ma?
Ma glared at me as he left. I wasn’t going to feel guilty about my unreasoned hatred for him. I just hated him. “Charles Davis West…” My ma growled. “You go after him and you apologize.” I pouted like a three year old child. Sort of. Well, I definitely did after she pushed me out of the door, Mary clutching her skirt, slamming it in my face.
With a sigh, I set out to find Sepp, teeth gritted and hands shoved sullenly into my pockets.
The bright robin egg blue of the sky did nothing to cheer me up. If anything it depressed me further – I met Joe on a similar day. Well, it didn’t matter. He was dead. Nothing was going to change that.
I guess I should’ve been paying attention – my foot hit something hard, making me stumble. “What the…” It was a crate. Not very big, but something inside sounded like it broke. Panicking, I lifted the top open to make sure it wasn’t dama-
Alcohol. Bottles of whiskey nestled together in bits of packing hay.
“Hey fella, what’cha doing to our property there?” I recognized his voice. The speaker was Tim – an old friend of mine from school. Obviously not so any more. I held up my hands to prove I wasn’t doing anything. Thank God Mary wasn’t there.
“Look, I’m not-”
“Mac, you don’t know from nothing,” That was someone else, behind Tim. In moments, two more came from the building behind Tim, to menace me. I winced – two I could handle, three maybe. Four was a stretch, one I couldn’t afford.
“Like I said, I’m just gonna be on my way. No need to make a big deal out of this.” They were fencing gigglewater, but I wasn’t about to get involved.
They muttered amongst themselves. “Fine, we’ll let you go.” The grins on their faces told me otherwise. But it wasn’t like I was about to call them out on it. I nodded to them and started on my way – only to be stopped by a hand on my shoulder.
“Where you going?”
I brushed Tim’s hand away. “Ya’all said I could go,” I said innocently. We all knew what was going to come next. The smell that reached my nose made me pause though. All of them smelled like the liquor they were obviously fencing. I wrinkled my nose.
“Ms Grundy got a problem with something?” One of the ones in the back said. The slur was more apparent now. Slapping aside Tim’s hand, I turned.
“Like you said, I don’t know from nothing,” I growled. They were grating on my nerves, but I had a kid at home and a farm that was floundering. I didn’t have time to get caught up in legalities.
I shouldn’t have turned around. I didn’t see the first swing come.
Tim got me good with a hook, making me stagger. He came at me again, but this time I was prepared. I tackled him into the others, managing to get an elbow into someone’s stomach and a knee in someone else’s. I was outnumbered and it was the best advantage I was going to get.
A fist knocked into my temple and I rolled off the heap, giving a solid kick as I scrambled backward. Running away would’ve been the best option, but there were four of them; the chances that at least one was faster than me was high. Instead I got my back to the wall. In fact, that was all I had time to do – they rushed me as soon as they got untangled.
The shortest one got to me first. He was built like a bull, but they were all drunk, so it just took a good shove to send him sprawling. Tim and another one – lanky, but stronger than he looked – grabbed my arms. I swore. I hadn’t seen them come up, I’d been so intent on the short one. The last one came up to me slowly, a feral grin on his face. He’d the ugliest mug I’d ever seen and a rank smell emanated from him. He grabbed my hair, yanking my head back. Tears stung my eyes.
“I heard y’sa fag,” he hissed. Something cold pressed against my throat. I had no idea how they’d gone from trying to stop me from tattling to me being queer.
“I ain’t,” I snapped. Turned out to be the wrong idea. He tugged on my hair again, and the point of his knife dug behind my ear.
“Fin, you think this is a real good idea?”
One of them was nervous at least. It was Lanky, whose hand was close to where Smelly had his knife.
“Shut up, and don’t say any names. What kind of idiot are you?” Tim hissed at Lanky. Well, it was obvious in the first place that none of them had brains worth jack, but then that was just my opinion.
Instead of saying anything, Smelly slammed me against the wall, crushing Lanky and Tim’s hands in the process. The two of them yelped and let me go. Wasn’t like I was going anywhere – Smelly had his arm on my windpipe. I swiped at him ineffectually, before Lanky and Tim recovered enough to grab my arms.
“You listen here, bub,” Smelly said, face so close I could see the stubble on his upper lip. I recoiled from the smell, vision starting to tinge gray. “Just stand here quietly while we off you. Think you could do that?” The arm not choking me drew back, the blade in his hand glinting ominously in the noon sun.
Then he was howling in pain.
Support suddenly vanished, I crumpled to the floor like a bag of rocks, wheezing for breath. I couldn’t see much, fast approaching unconscious that I was, but it was several thumps later when whoever saved me finally thought to flip me over to see if I was alright.
His face was hazy but… “Joe…?” I croaked.
Then I passed out.
Thursday, 24 October 1918
Thank you for your letter, from what you said, you must be busy and to take the time out of your day to do so for my sake… just, thank you. Despite your outrageously saying that your words were hardly fit for being penned, I found your letter quite comforting. Some things are of more value than others, and your words are part of the former, in spite of your exaggerated claims of illiteracy: you are too modest. In any case, I am glad to hear that Mary, Robert, and your family are well.
You say you are quite busy. It is quite the opposite here, or rather it is and isn’t. This is all I can really say about this place. Most days it is a waiting game: we await anxiously the missive that will send us to the front – this promises to be soon, we’ve heard talk of us going to the front in just a few days time. Tensions run high. Often times men have come back, broken, their eyes wounded and feral and bright with bitter grief, fever, rage that I do not think I could ever understand, even when I am sent. Yet, I wish to understand, though I think maybe it would break me; and wish that they had never had to understand, myself. Others come back hale and whole – but with their minds in tatters. Their eyes are dull like old coins, as though they have already died and yet their bodies still exist on earth, cages for their broken souls. These are the ones that send shudders of fear down my comrades’ spines.
Some men say they are glad they are single. Others of the men have said that they have women waiting for them, and yet they do not seem so nearly at ease as I myself feel. But often I hear the single men say that they envy the others for what they have; someone to come home to; and other times I hear the committed men say they envy the single men for what they have; a guiltless death, one not laden with the regret associated with wounding a loved one.
And though I count myself among neither group truly, I find myself most empathizing with the men with women, though I have no such person for myself. Perhaps it is the chance of infidelity that they risk, attaching themselves to a woman who is an ocean away, and knows that they might die at any moment… or, worse yet, come home crippled and fragmented. The men who go to the front say that to be injured thus – too much to heal and function, yet not enough to die – is the worst punishment we will ever experience. A certain living Hell, as it were. I am scared yes, but I am prepared to do my duty, for the sake of the world.
If I should come home, I wish for you to be the first to see me, whether I be whole and healthy, battered and broken, or with a full salute and march, in a bag. I know it is not mine to ask, but will you be there?
As ever, your friend,
PVT. Joseph M. Boyle
Co. B., 2nd Engrs.
Am. E.F., France
When I woke up it was to a raw wood ceiling and rough sheets. I blinked a few times just to see if I was still dreaming. I wasn’t. The room was a familiar one – and there was no way in hell that I had-
“Sepp?” I screwed my eyes shut and then opened them again. At least I thought it was him. Well it had to be, seeing as it was his room. He was sitting at the table, with a mug of something steaming and the newspaper. Something slid down the pillow to bump my hand. My glasses. Where had he gotten them? Bemused, I slipped them on.
The punched gut feeling I’d had when we got the letter when Joe died- it came back in full force. “Joe…” I whispered. So I hadn’t imagined him after the run in with those thugs. He folded up the newspaper, a sheepish grin on his face. “What are you doing in Sepp’s…”
He scratched the end of his nose. “I was going to tell you…” he started, as he wrestled with something in his pocket. A kerchief. My heart dropped through my stomach.
“Sepp…” I said weakly. I was halfway off the bed, my body seeming to move without me. “You’re Sepp,” I said, voice a little shrill. Now that I looked, I could see the similarities. It wasn’t too odd that I didn’t recognize Sepp as Joe: after all, I hadn’t seen Joe in almost three years. Joe had only been eighteen – in the time since I’d seen him, he’d filled out. When we met, I’d been taller than him. By the time he left, he was my height but scrawny. The person I was staring at had a build similar to mine, maybe a little taller.
The blanket fell to the floor as I stumbled toward the table. Shaking hands that were foreign to me – but my own – reached for his face. He was solid, real, not just some pipe dream or the result of a concussion. “How…” His hands covered mine. “They told us your platoon was shot down.” They were his hands, his, sun browned and freckled, callused and strong and warm. His.”I went to your funeral.” That close there wasn’t any denying that he was Joe, that Sepp was Joe.
So I looked away. Looked away and concentrated on anything else. On that stupid newspaper with a ridiculous drawing of Harding. I found myself in a crushing hug. “I am sorry, I truly am, for having kept this from you,” he mumbled into my shoulder. I gripped handfuls of his shirt, painfully tight.
“Then why did you?” His grip loosened, but I held on. “Why?”
“The…” He pushed me back forcibly. “The box they sent back.”
The one with the letters? “I never opened those letters,” I said, shaking my head. “Except the early ones.” I tried, read the beginning of one that was half finished, in that tiny box they gave us, but the slip of paper was so obviously meant for someone else. I never opened another one. “Never had the courag- I just couldn’t, not with you…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. But he wasn’t dead. He wasn’t.
A frown creased his brow. “You never read them? Or the journal?” His shoulders hunched and he started to turn away. I held him fast.
“What do you mean? Was I supposed to open them?” They hadn’t been addressed to me, and he’d never sent them. I didn’t know whom he meant them for, but the contents of the one letter I’d glanced at made my heart hurt. I relinquished my hold, slowly.
“I-” He slumped into the chair at the table. “I suppose I must explain.”
“Damn right you do!” I said, tugging at his shirt, which I still hadn’t released. Joe’s hand closed around mine again.
“There isn’t really much to tell,” he admitted, “I wasn’t entirely lucid myself.” He drew a shaky breath. “The Germans had launched a night attack, we weren’t prepared at all.” Turning my hand over, he ran the pad of his thumb absently over my knuckle. “We were in an enemy camp. They… they took care of us. We didn’t know why. Then they let us go.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. They told us when the treaty was signed, but didn’t let us go until months after.” He raised our joined hands and stared at mine as though he couldn’t believe I was alive just as much as I couldn’t believe he was. “The reason,” he swallowed nervously, throat working and eyes closing, “the reason I didn’t tell you, that I came back and was here this whole time without telling you, was because of the letters and the journal.”
I shook my head violently. “I didn’t read them,” I insisted. Unshed tears made my throat tight. The letters weren’t addressed to anyone and he hadn’t mentioned a name in the letter I saw. And the journal…
Mouth flattening out with pain, or something like it, he responded; “You should have. Well, perhaps it’s better that you didn’t. Or else…”
“Or else what?” I asked, starting to worry.
“For w-mhmph!” He cut me off with his mouth. It was quick, far from perfect, and his lips were chapped, but left me winded and dizzy with surprise. “What- you- why…”
He grimaced and ran a hand through his hair. “That’s what the journal was about,” he said thickly.
My face heated. “About you- this?”
He nodded and stood. “I should lea-”
I tugged him back. “Wait minnit, boy-o,” I snarled. He winced. “You just don’t go around necking people and running off.” It was a split decision I had to make, but I really had only one answer. I tugged him down until his face was level with mine, trapping him with a finger through a belt loop and a hand in his hair. “Better do this proper like.”
“Wait, Char-” My first attempt was enthusiastic, if clumsy, and worked well enough in preventing Joe from running off.
I couldn’t let him go again. Sure, I’d never really thought of him in a romantic light, but I hadn’t really thought about anyone that way. Hell if I was going to let him go: he’d finally come back – from the dead, it seemed.
My second attempt was much more successful, especially since Joe was actively participating.
Unfortunately he had to ruin it by pushing me back. Not that I couldn’t say that I didn’t feel at least a little self satisfied with the fact that his entire face was flushed and he was panting. Not to mention what was going on below his belt. I regarded it curiously, that situation I was presented with. “Charlie, I think maybe you should-”
I stood to kiss him again, this time being more forward. I had the advantage – Joe was completely taken by surprise. The hardness in his pants jabbed my thigh as I herded him toward the bed. When the back of his knees hit the bed, we fell over. I was plastered to his body, tangled in him.
It felt right, kissing, embracing, being with Joe.
Joe let himself be distracted, sucking my tongue into his mouth and allowing his hands to wander. I was so absorbed in trying to feel his entire body that I didn’t notice where they were going at first.
“What the-” My concentration broke, and he took the opportunity to get his other hand in my hair. He tugged, forcing my head back, teeth scraping my neck. “Joe,” I panted, legs falling farther on either side of him as his fingers worked their way into my pants. The feeling of his fingers running along my length was electrifying. In self defense, I pushed at his shoulder. He jerked back, as if burned.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, eyes wide with horror. As he wriggled to get out from under me, I moved a bit to accommodate him. But only enough to get a leg between his. My reward was a choked back moan.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Where’d’ya think you’re going, Joe-boy?”
That had to be the first time I’d ever seen him completely at a loss for words. I grinned. I had his hips pinned, and the rest of him, and he lay there staring up at me with a look of absolute shock on his face. I leaned down slowly, to let him know I was coming, to give him time to react. He closed his eyes, lips parting almost automatically. We shared a shuddery breath.
I don’t think either of us could believe that it was real.
That kiss was slow, careful. An uncertain press of lips like I was scared to hurt him.
I pulled his bottom lip with my teeth, sucking on it. As if he couldn’t help it, his hands tightened on my shoulders. Then his nose bumped into mine, knocking my glasses askew. I laughed and pulled them off to set them on the floor beneath the bed, leaning my entire body against Joe’s in the process.
“You can’t see with-”
I shook my head and grinned. “Why do I need sight when I can use my hands?” To prove my point, I closed my eyes and ran a finger across the stubble on his jaw and down. His breath hitched as my other hand joined in the slow exploration. I took my time, reveling in the feeling of his skin under my fingertips. My fingers bumped into the collar of his shirt,tracing along the buttons. I undid one, then another, taking my time.
“God, Charlie, if you stop-” The rest of his sentence was strangled by surprise – I’d reached the top of his pants. I hesitated, opening my eyes. Joe gave a shaky breath. “We- I,” he started, then he took another slow breath, “some of the other men talked…” Another pause; his face flushed. He must’ve been as unsure as I was. “I’m not saying I don’t want this because, God, Charlie if you stopped now I think I would die. But we can take it slow. Slower.”
My voice stuck in my throat. He knew me better than I did. I swallowed. “I want this,” I said slowly. I did. “I’m not really sure…” I gestured absently at him, a bit ashamed.
He frowned, pushing himself up on his elbows. “Well, here… If this will do…” He tugged at my pants and I scrambled off him,sliding off the bed, frantically following his unspoken order. A shy glance backward proved he was doing the same. “C’mere,” he said softly, tugging at my shirt. The loose flaps of his own framed his stiff cock. I bit my lip.
“What’re we…” I shook my head at my own question and let him pull me onto the bed.
He kissed me like he needed me as much as air. I kissed back with just as much fervor, letting him take the lead completely. I concentrated on his hands, not my now insignificant fear and anxiety, reveling in the warmth he traced across my stomach, the slight scratching of the rough pads of his fingertips as they grazed my nipples and along my stomach, ghosting over the livid bruises from the fight, pressing. I shivered at the dull, throbbing ache.
Shuffling me back against the wall, he pushed his body between the vee of my legs. I gasped at the way it brought our hips together, aligning our cocks.
Joe broke away from the kiss. “Here,” he said, pulling at my hand. I could feel my entire body shaking, but my hand was steady as he tugged it to where we were pressed together. He wrapped his fingers around mine. “Got it?” I tightened my hand and we both gave nervous laughs at the resultant jolt of pleasure. “I guess you do,” he said breathlessly. “Ready?”
“Y’know it,” I managed.
Then it was all I could do to keep up. Our rhythm was erratic, speeding and slowing in fits. Joe was just as bad at it, which made me feel a bit better. I could even feel when he was about to go.
“C’mon Joe,” I gasped, “c’mon, c’mon, I want-” His entire body tensed and he fell forward, pinning me to the wall. His grip tightened on me, just that side of painful, as he came, load coating my shirt. It took a moment for him to recover slightly – then he was merciless.
He shimmied back on the bed and – careless of the mess he’d made – braced an arm against my stomach. “Joe, what-” He sucked me into his mouth, without warning, without preamble. I gave a strangled moan and stuffed my knuckle into my mouth to keep from crying out.
Despite the overwhelming pleasure, I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow myself to not watch Joe. Goddamn if I’d missed the sight of his cheeks hollowing and his hand wrapping around the base of my dick. One pump of his fist and I was gone, shouting something incoherent.
I slumped bonelessly against the wall and he sat back on his heels, grinning and licking his mouth. I groaned and mustered enough strength to grab him and pull him down as we both basked in the afterglow.
The light coming from the window had all but vanished before we roused. I woke second, to him tracing my jaw with a finger.
“Who else knew,” I asked, gripping his hair so I could bury my face in his neck. Loose locks of hair tickled my nose as I breathed the musky smell of his sweat and skin. His hand settled over my neck, gentle and reassuring.
“My brother.” The hesitation when me and Mary were leaving… “Your mother.” And Ma sent me after him. My stomach twisted. He didn’t think me trustworthy at all.
“Why not me?” It came out hoarser than I intended. Tears prickled at my eyes, hot and achy. I blinked them back. “Why couldn’t you? For you-”
Joe flipped us over, pinning my wrists above my head and my hips with his legs in a brief scuffle. “Fear, it was fear. Look at me.” Reluctantly, I followed his order. His brown eyes were serious. “You hated me. At times I wondered if you did truly read the letters, the journal, and somehow knew that I was Sepp – that you hated me because of those.”
I flushed and looked away. It was true; I had hated Sepp. But that was because… “He reminded me of you. Or you reminded me of you. Or- just…”
Joe released my hands and sat back on his haunches, puzzled. “What?”
“You, as Sepp. I was… betraying you.” The feeling was hard to articulate.
Joe’s eyes widened, then he was covering his mouth, eyes scrunched closed, shaking above me. With… laughter. I growled and bucked him as best I could, knocking him over. We wrestled – I came out on the bottom again, with Joe restraining my arms. And still laughing.
“I’m not laughing at you,” he said between gasps.
“Could’ve fooled me,” I growled.
He shook his head. “I must be the strangest man in history, being jealous of myself doubly over.”
That made me pause. “Jealous?”
He nodded soberly. “Jealous of myself. For having taken so much of your attention.” Heat fanned across my face. I rolled us over again, narrowly missing hitting the wall with my head, silencing him with a bruising kiss.
It was as natural as breathing.
Tuesday, 29 October 1918
At times I question if I’ve reached yet the height of my perversity, yet my longing for you pushes me farther and farther. Perhaps I am deluding myself, and this affection for you is all in my head, make believe, that the mustard gas has truly choked all sense out of me without my knowledge. The dreams my mind provides me at night leave me shaking, my heart pounding, my clothes drenched in cold sweat, paranoid that the others may discover my thoughts when all that I truly want is to feel you. How not to present this crudely? My desires are feral, wild things that render me powerless. I am a changed man; perhaps not yet, in body, but in mind I am hardly the same person who left you. They say all soldiers go into war as boys and come out men, or broken. What then, am I?
I betray our friendship: I imagine myself catching you up into an embrace, holding you tightly just to know you are there, alive, well. In my mind, you would accept the embrace, return it, and relax into me. It makes my heart hurt to think such things since you never will, but I cannot help it – I wonder if you’ll read the letter I wrote to you and know. How much can a man change in a week’s time? It seems an eternity since I sent that letter. Even what is important to me has changed, though it may seem an exaggeration. If I sent that letter now it would be much different than the original. There are moments on the battlefield, when I think of you and the entire world seems to quiet itself and I am at peace even as shells hit around me, times when the thick clouds of yellow and dirt clog the air and I can’t see for my mask and all I can feel is your laugh shaking my body as we hold each other. Then reality drags me back and all that’s left is the dead bodies of my comrades and ghostly memories that I grasp at as they disappear, ephemeral as wisps of that killing gas in the wind, because they are not real.
Maybe it is as the old adage says: Absence makes the heart fonder. But, if I am honest with myself, I must admit that I felt this way before the war, before being sent away from you.
Perhaps it is your kindheartedness, your honest nature, your unfailing generosity. I have no clue what draws me to you. Though, never think this is misplaced gratitude, I would do no such thing, never insult you that way. In writing this I risk everything, but I cannot help it. I love you. Dear God, I have said it and I will say it a thousand times, if only in my mind, in the privacy of this journal, but I love you, I love you, I love you with all my self. God be damned but if it’s the last thing I do, it is here that I will confess myself, ask – beg – your forgiveness for doing this. And, maybe, hope.
I love you.
Much thanks to tattooed_arm and Cat for beta’ing, and putting up with my whining.