family

Homestead

Valter Ekstrӧm rode along the dirt path to his homestead, the dust of the road clinging to the sweat on his brow and streaking his white shirt. The midday sun baked the plains and left the air hot and stagnant without a single gust of wind to break the heat. The brightness of the sun drowned the color of the land in a pale hot light that forced Valter to squint as he made his way towards the comfort of shade.

On the porch of the white farmhouse, Kaija was sitting on the deck swing, reading as she idly rocked back and forth. When she noticed him riding down the road, she gave him a wave and announced Valter’s arrival to the rest of the house. When Valter was close enough, Kaija called out to him.

“Did you have a pleasant ride, Papa?” Valter nodded as he dismounted, eager to get out of the sun.

“Where is your brother?” he asked. Kaija shrugged. “He went to check the south field I think.”

The lanky human farmhand ran across the yard to take Valter’s horse. Valter stepped onto the porch and removed his hat, dabbing the sweat from his forehead with his kerchief. Kaija’s face was buried in another book from some starving human writer.

“Why do you read that nonsense?” Valter asked.

“Would you like me to read more of our local writers?” Kaija retorted, giving him a smart look. Valter answered with a raised eyebrow of bemusement. In his heart, he knew she was right. The political pamphlets and newspapers of the southern provinces made for poor reading.

Valter walked into the foyer of his house and was greeted by the light seafoam colored walls that his wife had insisted on. Pictures of Valter’s father and other deceased family members kept a vigilant watch over the house’s entrance while the grandfather clock kept time quietly in the corner. Valter had no real eye for decoration and was grateful that Irja had taken the initiative on making the house a proper home.

He stepped into the kitchen and sat down at the table, feeling the weight of the heat slowly easing off his shoulders. Irja entered the kitchen and kissed Valter’s forehead. Unlike Valter, Irja was pure farming stock. With a large, strong frame and a round, unassuming face, she looked far more at home on the frontier than Valter ever did. Whatever attraction Irja lacked, she was a good mother and well-suited to life in the borderlands.

“What’s the latest news from town?” she asked. Valter grumbled as Irja placed a plate of dried mutton sausage and black beer bread in front of him. With no concern for etiquette, Valter tore into the spread before him.

“There’s trouble on the border. They might call up the reserves.” He said, chewing through a link of spiced meat. Irja shook her head as she placed a glass of water next to Valter’s plate. He greedily gulped it down, washing down the meat and dust that clung to his throat. “I need to speak with the boys.”

Milo was the first to appear after being summoned by his mother. He was sandy-haired  young man with pine-green skin made darker by a childhood in the fields. While strong and healthy, he looked younger than his age, much to his distress. He took a seat in the living room, adjusting his suspenders. Valter’s eldest daughter Mikaela entered next after giving her father a quick kiss. Mikaela favored her mother with a similar round face and tightly braided dark blonde hair, though was of slighter build. She took her place next to Irja, highlighting the similarity even further.

Hugo entered the room last, the dust from his morning ride still hovering about him. Even a penny novelist would struggle to describe a more ideal countryman. Hugo stood tall with broad shoulders atop a frame of sinew and close cropped hair well out the way of his strong, angular face. His white shirt stretched across his muscles and even the dust that streaked his boots and trousers seemed like a fitting ascent rather than a mark of dishevelment. He was a true Orc of the land, as the old farmsteaders would say.

“What’s the latest news from town?” Hugo asked, wiping the sweat from his face.

“There are disputes with the humans to the North. A colonel from the frontier reserves was taking names of all able men in the event we should be called up.” Valter announced, all of his children taking in the news in their own way. The girls stirred and looked to each other while Milo shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Everybody waited for Valter to speak.

“I volunteered our farmhands to the auxiliaries and requested that you boys stay on the farm.” Valter said, watching the relief fall in his wife’s eyes.

“They would let you do that?” Mikaela asked. Valter nodded.

“We may be granted exception provided we supply grain to the army. But in the event the reserves are called to regular service then at least one man from each household must go. If it comes to it, Milo will go.” Milo’s face displayed a flash of total surprise he tried to suppress.

“Gods, why Milo? He’s barely of age!” Irja protested.

“The boy’s nineteen and in good health.” Valter countered, his tone grim and even.

“Why not let me go if the reserves are called?” Hugo asked.

“Without our hands, I’ll need you working in the fields. If the call is made, then your brother will answer.”

“Valter, please. Milo can’t go off to war. Surely taking the help is enough!” Irja said.

“Damnit, he’ll go if I say so, woman!” Valter shot back. The room tensed as Irja stepped back. She bore a look of scorn into Valter’s neck.

“If the call is made, I’ll answer it, mother.” Milo finally spoke. Valter nodded in approval but his face remained sour. His children all quietly took in the news and waited for Valter to speak again. Even Hugo knew better than to challenge his father’s authority now.

“Is there anything else, father?” Mikaela asked, trying to ease the tension.

“Things will likely grow harder in the coming weeks. I expect you all to pull your weight. Understood?” Valter asked as his family solemnly nodded.  He turned and exited the room, unwilling to endure more of Irja’s silent anger or the looks of his children.

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Retiring

“Here’s to you, Mark. You were a hell of a judge! Enjoy the well-earned retirement.” Teddy Warner toasted as he tapped his bottle of Yuengling against Mark’s scotch. Teddy was the last friend that had come out for Mark’s retirement party. It wasn’t a big event or anything, just a small gathering with some of the cops and lawyers he’d known as well as a fishing buddy or two. Big events weren’t Mark’s style.

“Thanks Teddy. Are you gonna be OK going home?” Mark asked, taking a sip of scotch. Teddy chuckled as he put his FOP baseball cap on his bald boulder of a head and slid on his coat.

“I’ll be fine. Carol’s waiting outside with the car. Are you gonna be OK getting home?”

“You bet. Thanks for coming out.” Mark wished his friend a safe trip home after they set a time to meet for lunch. With Teddy’s departure, Mark was back to being on his own. Just another patron in a bar that had long since changed from the first time he’d been there. The old bartenders were gone along with most of the patrons he’d known. Now it was a mix of young people in a bar with one foot caught in the past. Photos of old timers and local celebrities still hung on the walls but were slowly being pushed aside for flatscreen TVs showing the game. Mark sighed and took another sip of his drink, enjoying the calm.

“Excuse me? Mr. Reynold?” a man’s voice broke Mark out of his contemplation. He turned to see a man looking right at him.

“Yes? Do I know you?” Mark asked, unable to place the face smiling so intently at him.

“Oh sorry, the name’s Roman. I’m sorry to interrupt you but I overheard your friend before he left. You’re Judge Reynold, yes?” The man asked, his voice awash with serendipitous excitement.

“Former judge, yes. Have we met before?” Mark asked, still confused as to who this stranger was.

“Not in person but you lectured at Temple once. Mr. Reynold forgive me but you’re something of a local legend in my neighborhood.  You were the judge on the Aronov case in ’96 yes?”

Mark was caught flat-footed. The Aronov case felt like a lifetime ago. Some Russian jew from the Northeast part of the city who’d been running some gambling racket out of his barbershop. It was a straightforward enough case, hardly worth taking any great note of.

“Yes, I was the judge for that.” Mark said slowly. The man smiled at him again and extended his hand. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir.” The two shook hands and Mark smiled as he studied the fellow. He was young and wiry with dark blue eyes set deep in his angular face. His jet black hair was close cut and his face shaved. His hands were gloved and his overcoat hung open, dampness from melted snow still visible on the shoulders. Despite his friendly demeanor, there was something off about him. His movements were as if a current of electricity was pulsing underneath his skin, a static energy that Mark couldn’t quite place.

“What brings you here?” Mark asked Roman.

“Oh I just stopped in here for a drink on my way home from class. I’m glad I did though. Can I buy you a drink sir?” Roman asked.

Nice to have a fan Mark thought.

“I’ll take another scotch on the rocks. And you can call me Mark, kid.” Roman gave him a smile and turned towards the bar. With his new acquaintance gone, Mark finished his drink. He wouldn’t say no to someone buying a round for him. He’d have preferred his first twenty-something fan to be a girl but a drink was a drink. He just hoped this kid wasn’t trying to fuck him.

In a short order, Roman rematerialized with a glass of scotch in one hand and vodka in the other.

“Cheers.” Mark said as he toasted his new friend. “So you know the Aronov case?”

Roman threw back his drink before speaking. “Everybody in my neighborhood knew the Aronov case.”

“It wasn’t such a big case. God, what was his first name again?” Mark struggled through the cobwebs in his mind to recall the name. Like a weathered photo, he could vaguely remember the man, standing in the courtroom looking forlorn and defeated on the day he sentenced him.

“Oh in my neighborhood, even little news was big if it was local. I think it was something with a J-“

“Julius! That’s it” Mark plucked the name from the dark as the memory came closer to the surface.

“Right that was it. Anyway the whole event was all anybody talked about.” Roman said, trying to pull up the memories himself.

“That must have been a little before your time wouldn’t it?” Mark asked, trying to figure out what was behind this kid’s interest.

“Oh I was about 10 or somewhere close to it. My mother would talk about it all day though. She talked about everything but this was a major event. Practically feels like a part of my life it was such a talked about thing.” Roman said, smiling to himself, no doubt recalling the memories.

“I didn’t think it was such a big deal.” Mark said, honestly at a loss the notoriety at the case. He’d been part of far larger and high profile ones in his time. What the hell was so special about this small time gangster from Bustleton?

“Maybe it wasn’t a big case but it got me interested in law. Kind of set me up on the career path you know?” Roman said. Then it all clicked in Mark’s head. This asshole was looking for a fast-track to employment out of law school. He gave a little chuckle and patted the kid on the back. He was smart pick a smaller profile case. Most of the other brown-nosers wanted to talk all about his work on the Philadelphia mob. The kid was clever…but not clever enough.

Mark entertained the kid’s questions about his career and about how he decided the sentence, all the usual subtle attempts to build a personal rapport. He enjoyed another scotch and led the kid on, content to let him think that he was making any sort of progress. The law school grads were usually out this time of year, searching for some way to get a leg up or find some special patron. Mark had little patience for them. Nobody had helped him when he was starting out.

“I gotta take a leak.” Mark announced, taking a break from Roman’s attention and feeling the scotch catching up with him. He stood on surprisingly uneasy legs and shambled towards the bathroom.

Heh. Caught up in the pageantry.

The bathroom was a small room with a single urinal and dirty white tiles on the floor. Years of drunken patrons had left the walls covered with graffiti and scribbles. The florescent light twitched and flickered to life as Mark stepped into the space and stumbled towards the urinal. He wondered if that last scotch had been a good idea as he relieved himself.

You only retire once, he comforted himself.

The door opened and Roman stepped in. Mark glanced over and breathed an unsubtle sigh of annoyance. Couldn’t he even piss in peace?

“Look can you give me a minute here, kid?” He said. Even with his senses dulled, he felt the kid crowding close behind him.

“Sorry, I’ve just got a quick message for you from my father, Julius.” Roman said, his tone cold and menacing. Mark paused as he tried to make sense of what the kid said when he felt a hand grab the tuft of hair on the back of his head and jerk his head back. Before Mark could even process what was happening, he felt a white hot slicing pain across his throat as bright hot blood spurted out onto the wall. In an instant the knife had run the course of his throat and he felt all the breath in his body escaping through the wound. Instinctively, he clutched his throat as more blood poured out between his fingers.

He slumped against the wall and tried to turn around. He saw Roman panting and holding a straight razor in his left hand. Mark could feel his pulse slowing against his fingers as he crumpled to the floor, his blood making the tiles slick. He looked up at the kid standing just far enough away to avoid any incidental spray and felt hatred pouring out his eyes. Roman stood there with a cruel and satisfied smile on his face like he’d just unloaded some great weight.

Mark’s head grew light and his vision greyed. The pain in his throat became more and more distant as his eyelids grew heavy.

Roman leaned down, his face close to Mark.

“Ваше оскорбление было возвращено”

Motherland

Kostyantyn walked along the dirt path, enjoying the shade of the autumn trees that still had leaves. His grandson, Mykola ran ahead of him, kicking up piles of leaves and urging Kostyantyn to hurry up. The old man smiled even as his arthritic knees ached with each step. He reached into his jacket and pulled out an old crumpled pack of Belomorkanals and lit one up.

“Grandpa! You’re not supposed to smoke!” Mykola called out, running back to his grandfather. Kostyantyn smiled and shook his head. “This is a special occasion. Your papa will understand.” He exhaled, thinking for a moment of the first one he’d had. It was bent and tasted faintly of diesel fuel. The tanker who’d given it to him had laughed as he coughed and wheezed.

The two continued down the road, the lake slowly coming into view between the trees. At the shore was a sun-baked wooden pier with a faded green row boat tethered to it, bobbing up and down on greenish blue water. The paint was chipped and one of the seats was broken. Kostyantyn always swore he’d fix it some day or other. Though perhaps he’d wait until Mykola was just a little bit older to trust with tools.

“Is that your boat, grandpa?” Mykola asked, running down to the pier and gesturing at the old craft. Kostyantyn smiled again. Mykola looked ready to jump in and row off without him. All week, he had been flooding Kostyantyn with an endless series of questions about the hallowed Sunday fishing trip. Clearly, the boy’s father had oversold the outing to this excitable sandy-haired child.

Keeping the pain to himself, Kostyantyn prepared the boat and the spare fishing gear he’d brought with stiff and weathered hands. Mykola was more eager to get on the water than to help. As he watched his grandson stare eagerly at the boat and the lake itself, Kostyantyn couldn’t help but wonder what his own son, Anton, had thought of their first fishing trip together. It had been a long time ago and the weather was poorer as he remembered. Kostyantyn was not as calm back then. The war hadn’t quite finished with him yet.

He felt a pang of sorrow in his heart. How was Anton to understand? It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t there for when the fascists came, or the commissars before them. He was born into a different time…and a different land.

“Halt!” The voice cut through the quiet of the morning and Kostyantyn shot his head to the trail to see armed men marching towards him. They wore track pants and combat boots with their body armor underneath old surplus field jackets. Some wore balaclavas while others had patrol caps. Their leader had a cigarette tucked behind his ear.

“What’re you doing out here, old timer?” the leader asked, hand lazily resting on his sidearm.

“Just taking my grandson fishing.” Kostyantyn said as Mykola hid behind him. Kostyantyn put his hand on the boy’s head and broadened his chest to make himself as much of a shield as he could.

“Fishing, huh?” the leader said, indifferent and slightly condescending. The other men brandished their weapons and shared glances with each other. From their stances and voices, it was clear they were young and brash, except for their leader. His voice and his weathered brown eyes betrayed years of experience.

“Yes sir.” Kostyantyn said, his tone unthreatening but firm.

“Do you live around here?” the leader asked.

“Yes.”

“There’s a battlefield ten kilometers west of here. Why haven’t you left?” he asked, slight a sharper edge to his voice than before.

“Because this is home.” Kostyantyn said. A few of the men in the background chuckled or whispered amongst themselves but Kostyantyn kept his gaze fixed on the leader’s eyes.

“Are you Ukrainian?” he asked.

“I’m stubborn.”

There was moment of intense silence before the men all started laughing. All of them, except the leader, who simply gave a smile. It was a smile Kostyantyn had seen years ago before he left on the train for the front. It was through fogged and dirty glass but Kostyantyn remembered it so vividly. An old farmer quietly walking down a dirt path guiding a horse had given him that same smile. At the time, he didn’t understand what it meant.

“Enjoy your fishing.” The leader said, sliding the cigarette out from behind his ear and lighting it up. Kostyantyn gave the unit a knowing smile as they turned to follow their leader, unsure of what had just happened.

Trick-or-Treat

“C’mon dad! We need to get going!” Eric said, checking his cloak and his Darth Vader helmet in the mirror. James sighed and put down his book. Of all the ways to spend a Thursday night, this was not the first thing that came to mind. After a whole day of running around the city, handling one crisis after another, the idea of spending the next two hours on his feet going door to door sounded about as appealing as getting up for work the next morning.

“You better go before your son uses the Force on you.” Barbara said to him with a teasing smile on her face. James frowned at her. “He’s your son too.”

“I have to wait for the kids who come to our door.” Barbara replied, her tone matching her smile. James sighed, knowing there was no way out of it. He grabbed the keys to his car and found Eric marching around, red toy lightsaber in hand, quoting Star Wars.

“Are you ready, Darth?”

“Aren’t you going to wear a costume?” Eric asked him, lifting the helmet off his head, revealing his little cherub face and jet black hair.

“I’m sorry kemosabe. My costume’s at the dry-cleaners.” James lied.

Eric pulled his helmet back down over his head, “I find your lack of faith disturbing!” The timing, coupled with Eric’s 9 year old voice forced a laugh out of James.

“Let’s get some candy, you goof.”

The car ride to Eric’s friend, David’s house was a short one. James wheeled through the lanes of identical houses to the end of the block. There were throngs of other children and parents wandering through the neighborhood under the yellow glazed streetlamps. All of them in costume and with pillowcases sagging to a certain extent. James sighed again, remembering how many houses there were in this neighborhood. Jesus Christ, I’ll be out here all night, he thought to himself.

Eric had the car door open a millisecond after James turned the car off. As James stepped out of his car, he looked at the lawn of David’s house. It was sparsely decorated, with only two pumpkins sitting by the front door. Both of the neighboring houses had gone all out with fake cobwebs draped over everything, carved pumpkins and even a plastic skeleton.

Walking behind his son, James struggled to remember the last time he had done anything festive for Halloween. He then stumbled on the memory of his junior year of college. He went as John Wayne, complete with cavalry shirt, boots and hat. James smiled to himself as he thought of the party he went to that night and of the drunken impression he insisted on doing the whole time. He was brought back to the present by his little sith lord ringing the doorbell.

The door opened to reveal Carly, David’s mother, no costume visible. “Hi Mrs. Alexander. Is David ready?” Eric said as he and James stepped into the foyer.

“Well aren’t you something. Hello James!” She said in that overly sweet voice she was so prone to using. James feigned enthusiasm and returned her hug.

When James saw David emerge from the basement with no costume, he knew something was about to take a turn for the worse.

“Hey Eric.” David said in a casual disinterested voice.

“H-hey David.” Eric replied pulling his helmet off. James could hear the embarrassment and hurt in his son’s voice. These two had been going trick-or-treating since David’s family first moved out here.

“So you’re goin around the neighborhood?” David asked, sounding as disinterested as before. Eric shifted in place, trying feebly to hide his helmet and pillowcase behind his back. “That’s cool.”

James shot his focus back on Carly, who seemed completely oblivious to what was going on. “David’s just not feeling going out this year.” She said in a quieter tone while the two boys talked. James was furious at her. She stood there with that fake sugary smile on her face, acting like nothing had happened.

“So would you like to stay a while? Jerry’s in the den. I can fix you a drink if you’d like.” She made the offer to him, back to being loud.

“No, we’re leaving.” James said, making no effort to hide his contempt. “C’mon pal.” He patted Eric on the back.

“Bye.” Eric managed to get out, his voice struggling to hold back tears.

“See ya” David said, as oblivious as his mother.

Even in the dim light on the walk to the car, James could see the sheer hurt in Eric’s tear-filled green eyes. It ate at his heart and James wished more than anything he could take the embarrassment for his son, that he could rewind time or anything just to dry his boy’s eyes. Eric climbed into the car, no longer able to contain himself. He cried softly, using the pillowcase to try and hide his face.

“Hey now. It’s OK.” James said in as soothing a voice as he could muster through the anger that was sitting on his chest like a weight. “We’ll dry those tears and get you a pillowcase full of candy.” He said, rubbing Eric’s hair.

“I just want to go home.” Eric said, finally getting enough breath to form sentences. It broke James’s heart to even listen to his son, much less look at him. The image of his little boy caught completely off-guard and left hanging out to dry by his “friend” was torture. God, he’d give anything to erase that memory. “Are you sure? We can go to as many houses as you want.” James offered again, trying to cheer Eric up even a little.

“Can we please just go home?” Eric asked, looking up at his dad. The little tear-stained face punched James right in the chest, adding sadness to the range of hatred he was feeling.

The car ride home was a quiet one. Just the occasional whimper of Eric or the muffled whizz of a passing car. When they got back to the house, Eric set to getting himself out of his costume as fast as he could.

“That was quick. Did you even let him out of the car?” Barbara asked James as he came into the den. James hadn’t even finished explaining before Barbara was on her feet, searching for her son. She gave him a big hug and helped him out of the cape he had tangled himself in with all the gentle and compassionate grace that seemed to come naturally to mothers.

James picked up the empty pillowcase, now damp with tears and snot. He took it to the laundry room when Barbara came in.

“I just put him to bed. Do you want to go in and turn the light off?” She said, the anger in her voice bleeding out.

“Nope.” James said with a smile as an idea came to life in his head.

Eric was lying with the covers pulled over his head. James sat down on the bed next to him.

“Eric? Can you come out?”

The boy shuffled but still remained under the covers. James couldn’t help but smile at the stubbornness of his kid.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.” Eric shuffled again, poking his head out from underneath the covers just so that his eyes could see.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Your bedtime’s been extended so you can help me catch the rebels!” James said, with a smile.

“What do you mean?” Eric asked.

“I can’t watch Star Wars without my Darth Vader.” James said, revealing the Vader helmet. Eric’s face slowly lit up, as James’s enthusiasm washed over.

“Whaddya say, Chief? I’ll even steal the candy we got for the other kids if you promise not to tell Mom.” James said, knowing full well how strict Barbara had been about Eric not eating the designated trick-or-treater candy.

Eric smiled, hugged his dad as tight as he could then took the helmet and pulled it over his head. “There will be no one to stop us this time!”

Wrath of the Norse

Dull pain echoed across his body before Marcus opened his eyes. He lifted his head out of the frigid dirt that caked onto his forehead and face, anchored there by dried blood. His chest caught fire every time he took a breath and his brain pounded against the wall of his skull.

Marcus sat up and tried to get his bearings. The woods spread behind him. There was a light frost on the ground and the sun climbed to high noon behind a veil of grey. The air carried no noises: no chirping of birds, no chopping of wood, nothing. Normally the morning brought forth a symphony of sounds, but now there was an unearthly stillness. The smell of fire filled his nostrils.

Marcus rose on unsteady legs and prepared for a sluggish journey home. It was when he turned that he saw the origin of the fire: his village. As he approached, he saw the ruined remains of his once calm corner of the world. The sea-weathered stone houses had been torn down and their roofs set aflame. Overturned baskets and simple furniture littered the ground. And then there were the bodies. Men and women laid dismembered across the ground with spears and arrows sticking out of them. A hatchet protruded from the town blacksmith’s back. Blood splattered across the ground.

What little air that was in his chest vanished. This couldn’t be real. He had woken up that morning and the lazy sounds of the village morn were present as they always were. Now there was silence and death. This couldn’t be right. This isn’t right. This doesn’t make sense.

Like a dream stepping into dawn, the memory of that morning slowly came back to Marcus. He remembered his papa tasking him to check the traps they had set in the woods the evening before. He was walking up the lone dirt path when something emerged from the woods. It was a man, a burly armored hulk of a man. He’d carried a great round shield and an axe. The last moment Marcus could recall was the crack of his nose breaking as that shield came across his face.

Throughout the village were footprints and tracks. There must have been more of the strange warriors in the woods. His mama had always told him of dangerous men that came from the sea to grab children who misbehaved, but he always thought those were stories for his younger brother and sister.

He limped down the main path to his hut near the storehouse. Despite his exhaustion, the reality of the massacre was starting to set in. Panic was crawling up from his stomach and fueling the burning pain in his lungs. With each body he passed, Marcus braced to see his dead family. When he came to his home, he saw his papa slumped against the stone wall of the hut, his woodcutting axe still clutched in his hands. Dried blood left dark crimson stains in his tunic. Mama was closer to the shore; a spear was standing upright in her back. Marcus felt his heart sinking deeper and deeper into his damaged chest. He wanted to sit down and cry, but he knew he had to find his brother and sister first.

He made his way to the shore where he found a few more dead villagers but no sign of his siblings. He walked down the beach and saw a strange track in the sand. It looked like a trail of a fishing boat but was much larger. It also seemed to come from the land. Next to the track, Marcus saw the necklace that his mama had made for his little sister, Hilda. It was a small, unassuming thing: just a simple woven necklace of a horse. Marcus knew the pretty green and gold threads that his mama favored. A horrifying thought crawled into Marcus’s mind.

Could the men from the forest have taken his sister and brother?

He collapsed in a heap on the beach, looking out to the dark and churning sea. The quiet was more oppressive than the devastation around him. Marcus held his head and let his tears flow. He wept in silence. He had started the morning, annoyed at still having to perform the childish chore of checking traps. As the tears ran down his bruised face, Marcus wished harder than he ever had before to wake up and start that morning over.

The pale sun disappeared behind the clouds and the world grew darker.

Thin Stews and Long Winters

“Are we having lettuce stew again, Mama?” Willy asked his mother as she stirred a black battered pot over the small stove.

“Yes my dear,” Helene replied, her voice tired and almost in pain. She had been making stews thinner and thinner since the winter began. There hadn’t been meat in weeks and now even bread was becoming scarce.

Her two children were laying on the floor. Willy was playing with the little wooden toy plane her husband had made him last year while her daughter, Johanna read a book. It was clear to Helene that her children were getting thinner since the fall. Johanna used to fret about fitting into her Sunday dress but now it hung on her like a curtain. Willy’s rosy and full cheeks were thin and pale. It pained her to see her children waste away slowly. Almost as painful as it was to read the newspaper and think of her eldest child in the freezing mud at Ypres.

It seemed every day another family in the neighborhood lost a son, a father or a husband at the front. Helene’s sister lost all four of her sons last month at Verdun. She committed suicide a week later. Helene prayed every single night asking God not to let that happen to her.

The front door opened and her husband Johan walked in with a small basket filled with even smaller vegetables and a half-loaf of bread.

“Papa!” Willy cried out and was up on his feet and latched onto his father’s leg with blazing speed. The display choked Helene up a little every time it happened. In the midst of such hardship, her little boy could still find such bliss and happiness at his father coming home.

Johan rubbed his son’s mop of blond hair and made his way to the kitchen.

“Papa, are you hurt!?” Johanna cried when she saw her father’s face. Helene turned away from the stew and saw Johan had a black eye and a small trickle of blood from his nose.

“What happened, Papa?” Willy asked.

“I was chased by monsters. But no need to worry. I scared them off,” he said with a smile and kissed his boy on the head. He brought the basket into the kitchen and placed his meagre harvest on the table.

“Good God, what happened?” Helene asked. She held a cloth out and he placed it under his nose.

“Some hoodlums saw the bread and tried to steal it. I suppose I frustrated them,” he said with a half-smile. She wanted to cry at that news. Her face must have given away how she felt because Johan put his arms around her and kissed her on the head.

“The stew smells incredible,” he said, changing the subject. The children came in and sat around the table. The family said a small prayer and then began slowly eating their supper.

“Papa?” Willy asked, “When is Ulrich coming home?”

Johan looked up from his stew and after a long moment, turned to answer Willy.

“Your brother keeping us safe but that takes time,” he said.

“Will he be home soon?” Willy asked, blissfully ignorant of the harsh realities of the world.

Helene felt tears welling up behind her eyes and Johan’s unshakeable optimistic twinkle in his eye disappeared.

“I’m afraid not, my boy. He could be gone for a long time,”