Embe Charpentier's two novellas, "Beloved Dead" and "Sparks" are published by Kellan Books. She has also been published over 30 times online by journals such as "Polychrome Ink", "Poydras Review", and "The Quotable". See me on my website: embecharpentier.com or on Facebook as Michelle Fidalgo. I'm also on Twitter @embecharpentier.
NO LESS DAYS
3 October, 1918
In the airplane hangar, the uninfected soldiers set cots where planes once stretched their wings. The makeshift hospital reeks of Listerine. Wet, labored coughing echoes in the rafters. The soldiers of Camp Pike, Arkansas twist in their sickbeds, seeking a comfortable spot amidst their future shrouds. A peach-cheeked nurse speaks through her mask. “Private, you’ll be in Europe soon enough.”
Though no fever yet burns within him, Lieutenant Roy Ross feels hot breath upon his neck. Two men in his barracks lay here, their temperatures elevated, their bodies limp as though already dead.
The commander’s band plays at the edge of the parade grounds to cheer the sick as Roy heads toward the gate. The truck from the lumber yard is here. For the enlisted men, freedom from the dictates of the military rests only in the pine boxes he delivers. A day before, three of the men in the hangar died so fast their bodies became cyanotic. The officers handled the removal of their blue bodies. No need to start a panic.
Roy’s stripes allow him passage outside the gates, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before quarantine binds every soldier in Camp Pike.
The doctors borrowed every car in camp, but Tanglewood is only two miles away. Roy strides past fields of tall cornstalks. Under a blue sky strafed by thin clouds, crows pick at ears that go unharvested. As he follows a forest pathway, he envisions the hills of Belleau Woods, where the blood of both sides fed the trunks of ancient oaks. His boots crunch the browned grass. The leaning shack by the cow pond ends his journey.
Fragrant eucalyptus bunches line the walls of the hut. She left a sack of onions and a knife for him beside a sugar bowl. Roy slices the onion in half and rubs the sugar into its rings. The sweet, sharp juices mingle atop the surface of each half, and Roy slurps it up, the tang fresh as life itself. He chases it with a glass of tincture of elderberries, another remedy for the grippe. It had not worked for her brother Luke.
The taste of life from a woman who calls herself the Grim Weeper.
Up the hill to the beckoning farmhouse, a whitewashed amalgam of rooms attached to a dilapidated central core. The floors are not level nor are the door frames plumb. The living room’s player piano sits still, but the gramophone blares Over There. Dirty hands, busy hands have worn the living room wallpaper to its brown backing years before.
“Tilda," Roy calls.
She wears her pink dress only in honor of his visits, she says. The dress' hem is frayed and it falls away from her skinny frame despite the doubling of her father's belt around her waist. "You're here!" she cries, and runs to him, holds him tight enough to feel their breath come together, ebb away.
The bags under her eyes prompt his question: "You're not sleeping again, are you? Do you still hear their voices?"
"Sometimes they speak in the daytime now. They mean me no harm," Tilda says. "They just need remembering is all." She leads him to the table, set with five plates. Included are one for her father, another for her mother, a third for Luke. Mere tradition to set their places, since they lie beside the house, crosses marking their places of rest, buried by Roy’s hands, prayed for daily by Tilda.
The flu takes no prisoners.
The music stops, and Roy hears a rattling about in the cellar. “Who’s here?” he whispers.
“Men who said they was from the state health department,” Tilda says. “They said they heard my family died and had to investigate. But the two of’em had damn bad coughs. They’ve been down there for nigh on to fifteen minutes. Maybe I should check on them?”
Roy grimaces. “Don’t do anything just yet. I’m going to go outside, look at’em through that little window. I might be able to see what they’re doing down there.”
He gingerly crosses the squeaking floorboards to the sagging porch. Along the side of the house near the burial site, a dirt-spattered pane of glass lies at ground level. Laying down on his belly, he finds he cannot see anything, so he rubs the surface with two fingers until he can see a man holding a glass jar of clear liquid.
Roy, in turn, is seen. Scrambling to his feet, he rushes back into the house. As he hears Tilda scream, he runs into the living room. The muscular man hiding beside the threshold pulls him, turns him, punches him hard enough to snap his chin upward. Roy’s knees buckle. A hand snatches Roy’s Colt from its holster. In a blur, Roy sees the skinny young man push Tilda, then take his gun from the big man’s hand. As his bulky assailant’s cough explodes from his throat, he is distracted. Roy shoves himself backward, but not far enough. The acrid odor of white lightning fills his senses as the big man grabs him by the neck and drops him into the wing chair hard enough to wrench a spring.
“Shoulda left well enough alone, Soldier Boy,” the gun-toting youth says. “Saw the still’s copper pipes a’shinin’ in the sun when we was huntin’ over yonder. White lightning’s as good as patent medicine when you start with the hackin’. All we was doin’ was takin’ what we need.”
The big man offers Tilda a helping hand, but as she rose, he wraps an arm around her waist. “Nice little girl like you don’t drink no moonshine.” He twists a strand of her long brown hair. “If you’re not one of them infernal Bible thumpers, I can show you a good ol’ time.”
“Leave her alone,” Roy hollers.
“Go now, before I make you sorry. I looked death in the face.” Tilda’s sweet tinkle of a voice diminishes to an ominous whisper.
“I’m not afraid of you, l’il lady,” Big Man says, tracing Tilda’s jaw line with his finger.
The boy with the gun coughs, and Roy, seizing his opportunity, explodes from his seat. He goes for the weapon. The Colt aims up to the ceiling, down to the floorboards, then slides toward Tilda’s feet. She falls to the floor and seizes the gun’s grip. Big Man’s chest is just inches from the barrel when she fires twice. He tumbles to the floor as the young man, still grappling with Roy, gapes at what she has done. She points the gun at the boy’s face.
“Let go, boy,” she whispers.
He releases Roy’s wrists to cough until he is bent in half. “Go on and shoot,” he wheezes. “It’s you or the flu. Life don’t mean nothin’, don’t you know that? Your family’s gone --”
Tilda pulls the trigger again, the bullet striking the boy’s forehead. Roy’s breath sighs from him in a panicked rush before Tilda offers him the Colt. “Please take it back,” she says. She cries from deep in her belly, heaving and shaking.
“We have to call for the sheriff.” Roy holds Tilda in his arms. “You were defending your body and your property. They won’t send you to jail.”
From behind her tears, her eyes trace the trail of blood from the boy’s wound. “I tried to tell’em. Surer than Hells’s hot, I’m the Grim Weeper.”
They take a ride into town on the old horses that graze in the far pasture. The sheriff and his deputies follow them down the dirt road and out to the house.
She isn’t arrested. In fact, the sheriff tells her she was brave to defend herself. “A girl out here alone needs to be able to shoot and not afraid to do it,” he says.
She remains on the porch as the undertaker’s wagon bears the bodies away. Her reedy version of Amazing Grace makes Roy cry, too. She sings loudest when the lyrics consider eternity:
When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Then when we first begun.
Roy overhears the captains in the officers’ mess. The camp is scheduled to go under full quarantine within twenty-four hours. Without requesting leave, suspecting he would be refused, he heads for the gate. His arms pierce the fall breeze as he marches across the parade grounds like the victorious doughboys in Western Europe.
Tilda will be home – of that he is sure.
At the gate, the sergeant orders Roy back. “Nobody’s leaving today. Commander’s orders.”
No arguing with the man. Roy turns back, recalling Tilda’s version Amazing Grace once more. Have her tears ceased? Has she slept? Have the voices of her family grown louder?
He enters the hangar, seeking his fellow lieutenants who had been carried there. Beside a man whose cheeks have already burst into blue, a volunteer nurse sits. Through her mask she reads a letter, perhaps the last he will ever hear.
“I look forward to seeing you again, my darling.”
The half-dead man may not hear the catch in the nurse’s throat, but Roy recognizes her fear. His stomach tumbles as a nearby victim vomits into a bucket.
He is halfway across the hangar floor when a familiar voice calls his name.
As he turns, Tilda pulls off her mask and walks toward him, arms open. “I came to help.” She holds him tight. “They need us women here.”
She rests his head on his shoulder as their blue eyes fill with tears. “Where did you find the strength to come here?” Roy asks.
“You can’t run from death. You gotta make it run from you,” she says.