The Indie Ink Writing Challenge comes to me this week from Karla, who tells me about fear on a summer's day. My challenge went out to Octoberesque. I call this "July 1, 1863".
Molly Chandler pulled her dress on quickly, hopping out of bed and pulling the fabric over her head. If she was going to make it out to see the boys play a game of base this afternoon, she had to get her chores done early. First was the hole in the seat of James' blue pants- her younger brother was always splitting seams and dirtying knees, and with Father off with the army, she had to do Mother's work, because Mother had to do Father's.
It was hot. Molly felt sticky as soon as she awoke, her nightclothes had clung to her tiny frame as she slept. Putting on the dress which had hung overnight felt good for a moment, the new fabric cool and smooth. She neglected her underthings, an omission Mother was always after her about, saying that a lady didn't do such things. "But I'm not a lady," Molly always wanted to say- "I'm a girl!" But Molly wouldn't dare talk back to Mother, and she secretly suspected Mother was right.
Molly came down the stairs barefoot, feeling the cool of the air on the lower level, focused on her tasks and about to pick up the needle and thread when she heard a crack of thunder. So much for the game, she thought- but then there was another, and another, and yet another. That was no storm- but the game was called off just the same. The air felt funny, the smells of summer now stagnant, smoky, mechanical, wrong. Molly had been looking forward to the game all week, but somehow knew it wasn't going to happen at the same time.
Molly knew about the war, of course- her father had finally relented and marched with the bluecoats, despite the fact he was the only support for Mother, Molly, and James. She heard snatches of talk at dinner, taking dirty plates away from the table, and she was able to read enough to follow what was happening. Johnny Reb was nearby, she knew that much, but she couldn't imagine they could find anything of interest in her little house.
The noise was becoming constant now, volleys of snaps from shoulder weapons, with larger, booming explosions that were cannon. Mother came into the room with Molly, her face drained of color. "Where's your brother?"
"I don't know, Mother. I just got up and I-"
"Go look for him!," she ordered sternly. "But don't you leave this house!" That would make for a short search, Molly thought-there were only 6 rooms he could be in, and she was sitting in one of them.
Obediently, she got up to begin the search when someone knocked on their front door. Mother hissed at her, "Don't you move!", then went above the door for their ancient musket. Used for scaring prowlers more than actual hunting, it was unloaded.
She opened the door to a tall, barefoot man with a long, dirty beard. He smelled like smoke and sweat, and both his shirt and his pants were torn and stained with grease and mud. Mother held the gun in front of her chest protectively. "What unit are you with," she ordered him sternly. "This is a Union house, and I-"
Mother stopped as the man sort of swayed in front of her. "The Twenty Sixth North...," he managed to get out as he began to pitch forward. The smell hit Molly shortly after it hit her mother- some of those stains were not dirt.
Mother half caught the man, guiding him down to their floor. "Mol-," her mother said with an eerie calm. "Go to my closet and get those white towels, then go into my room and find a red box under my bed." Molly didn't move. "Quickly, girl, now!"
Molly got the items and returned to her mother's side.
"Mother, he's a reb-," Molly began, when her mother cut her off.
"He's a human being, child. Now, fetch me some water, as much as you can. Hurry!" The man was breathing, but it was a horrid, uneven sound, like he would stop at any moment. Mother had removed the rags across the man's chest, and Molly could now see the way his side had been turned from ribs, flesh and skin into a red, gristly mess.
She brought the water, and her mother had wiped some of the blood off the man's side, with one of the towels covering where his skin should be. "Your Aunt Nancy was in a battlefield hospital last summer," Mother said. "Hold that towel in place there while I fetch her," she continued, and was out the door before Molly could react. Molly reached out, trying to hold the clean end of the towel that was pressed into the man's side.
"Excuse me, miss?," the man croaked.
"Y-Yes?," Molly said.
"Could you get me a bit of water?," the man said. Molly went back into the kitchen to get a glass, dipping it into the bucket and holding it to the man's lips. He slurped at it, some spilling into his beard and on his neck.
"Thank you, miss," he said, his voice a little stronger. The man looked into her eyes, and Molly involuntarily turned her gaze aside. "You're a right pretty young lady, miss. You remind me strongly of my daughter Cornelia. I miss her so terribly, I--," the man said, stopping to cough violently. "I never wanted this to happen," he said.
"My father is a Union-" she began.
"I know, miss. Your mother said. It's very kind of you to tend to me like this."
Molly looked at the man. His eyes were kind and wise, and she now saw the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes when he tried to smile. His face immediately scrunched up with pain.
"Miss, could I request one more thing?"
"Yes," Molly said. What was keeping Mother, she thought.
"It's been so long since I held my Cordelia's hand. Would you just hold a soldier's hand for a minute, please, miss?"
Molly placed her trim fingers into the man's palm, coarsened by work and sweat. He tightened his fingers around her with incredible gentleness. "Thank you, miss-," the man said, then began coughing again. His breathing sounded rougher, more shallow, the puffs coming more quickly. Mother and Aunt Nancy came through the door, Nancy holding a leather pouch, out of breath from running. Nancy stepped over the man's legs, crouching by his head. The man's eyes were fluttering.
"You did all you could, Marie." Mother, still standing, nodded her assent.
With a shudder, the man's breathing ceased. Molly felt the man's fingers release hers.