This story is by Ergene Kim and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jaime had sense enough to bring a book. Its presence was warm on his back, where the single rucksack he was carrying did little to ease the burn of its covers and memories. The snow helped, he thought, forcing down a wince as he shouldered the straps of the bag and his book dug subtly into his spine. His mother’s book, rather. Jaime wasn’t like his brother — the art of language had never made its siren call to him, and the only words he could read were the ones written on his own dog tags: Jaime Lionel, and Teddy Edgar.
“You should’ve learned while you could,” said Teddy, from where he lay curled up in Jaime’s stiff arms. A stray snowflake had made its way onto his younger brother’s little form, and Jaime wiped it away carefully, handling Teddy into a more comfortable position that would shield him from the heightening wind.
“It was never for me,” said Jaime, keeping his voice soft. He glanced quickly at the sky — it had darkened from pale blue to grey in the hours he’d spent walking away from the ruins of Briston. The wind was picking up, he thought, and bringing the snow with it, too. The trees would do little to protect them, should it get any colder. It was high time to escape the forest and crawl into Haford.
“But you brought a book,” continued Teddy, twisting to meet Jaime’s eyes with his own wide blue ones. “It was my favorite, too.”
Jaime smiled down gently at the precious cargo he held in his arms, the faint outlines of a town appearing in his peripheral vision.
“I know, brother. Hush now.”
The second dog tag, the one that was not his, hung heavy from Jaime’s neck as he crossed the threshold of Haford. “The doomed town,” as the Reds called it. They would be coming here next, lost in the throes of war, on the signal that would be set off by Jaime’s own hands. He shivered slightly, and wrapped his arms tighter around his brother.
He had to find the home of the Edgars by matching letters, because Teddy had fallen asleep. The town seemed deserted, with only the easterly wind and the sound of his brother’s labored breaths giving Jaime’s ears something to listen to. The snow had covered up any tracks the townspeople could have made in the past hour, and as he carefully wiped the sign that read “Edgar,” he felt curiously, hopelessly, alone.
Jaime knocked cautiously on the wooden door, stepping back after to wait at a small distance. He glanced at the watch on his wrist that he’d taken off of Teddy Edgar’s rapidly cooling body. He’d return it, he thought, it was only right to do so. But there were some bloodstains. Someone would have to wipe that off. It’d have to be his burden, Jaime thought, and a cold hand gripped his empty heart as he reached for his sleeve. Edgar’s death was his burden to bear.
The door opened just as Jaime was cleaning off the last spot of red. He instinctively hid his wrist behind Teddy, looking up to find a shockingly warm face, untouched by the desolation that surrounded it. A truly motherly face, he thought, and the hand around his heart grew colder.
“You’re a soldier, then,” remarked the woman, her pale grey eyes flitting from Jaime’s worn face to the stark red band around his left arm, and finally to the treasure resting in his arms. The grey eyes filled with sympathy, and she gently rested a withered hand on his cheek. “With someone special. Come in dear, it’s too cold for anything to survive in this miserable weather.”
Mrs. Edgar left the door open as she bustled back inside, and Jaime stepped softly into the house, feeling every bit the unwelcome invader. It was a one-room house, with the kitchen on the far side beneath a single window that showed the snow falling in vicious torrents. A mattress bed lay to the right of him in the corner, where a weak fire was puffing smoke into the chimney. An oak table with three chairs rested near the kitchen, completing the small collection of utilities within the empty home.
“Sit down,” said Mrs. Edgar kindly, bustling about the kitchen. “Make yourself comfortable, dear. I’ll make you some nice hot tea.”
“Thank you,” Jaime whispered hoarsely. Clutching Teddy–his Teddy– closer to his chest, he walked over to the oak table. The dog tag with the name “Teddy Edgar” was hot enough, Jaime thought, to burn through his skin. And yet he would not take it off.
He set his brother carefully on the tabletop, attempting to ignore the piercing look Teddy gave him and failing.
“Not now,” Jaime breathed. “But she’ll have to know. It’s her right as his mother.”
Teddy gave him a regretful smile, and reached forward to cup a small hand around Jaime’s face. His baby brother’s fingers, as light as butterflies on an unmoving summer lake, were cold on his cheek. There was a sudden sting in his throat and eyes–Jaime remembered holding Teddy when he was younger. He had been so warm. So alive.
“You don’t have to,” Teddy informed him, and Jaime worked his mouth silently, averting his gaze.
“But it’s your choice,” continued Teddy. He let his hand fall back to his side, and when Jaime dared to lift his eyes again, the outlines of his brother’s form had gone blurry. As if he was being erased.
“Don’t mourn, brother. It’ll be alright in the end.”
Jaime curled his fingers into the wood, relishing the pain he received from the action. The pain was real, he thought, the pain, remember the pain.
How can you tell me not to mourn, when you’re gone?
“Don’t go,” Jaime insisted, his voice alarmingly uneven. “We have more time.”
A lie they both disbelieved.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry–
“Jaime, this isn’t your fault.”
“It was my choice to join the war, even when you begged me not to.”
“And it was my choice to follow you into it,” Teddy said firmly. “You didn’t kill me. The war did.”
“It was payment. For Teddy Edgar’s life. The life I took.”
God wills it so, that the man I killed owns the same name as my own brother.
“No.” Teddy shook his head, and Jaime had to lean forwards to catch the movement. A sliver of winter light, rare to find, escaped into the room and illuminated his fading figure.
“I’m here, brother. Don’t be scared.”
Teddy’s words were carried away on the beam of light, drifting, light as child’s laughter, and away, away, away–
I’m here, breathing, and you’re there, drowning in fire.
Jaime stood at the unofficial entrance to Haford, watching silently as the meager lines of starving men and their families painstakingly picked their way out of the ill-fated town. He received an equal share of unkind and curious stares, the latter mostly coming from children. The unkind ones were well deserved, he thought, since he was a coward.
Mrs. Edgar would never know, for all of time, that the red-coated boy with the jar of ashes was the murderer of her only son.
He’d sent Teddy off with her. The ground was frozen, so it was impossible to make a dent in it, much less dig a proper hole. Mrs. Edgar had promised to protect his little brother, and when they’d reached their next safe haven, in the direction of the rising sun, to bury the jar for good.
The hole in his own chest grew as he crouched in the snow and waited for the right time to set off his signal. He looked down the beaten path that he would soon be leading, and, much to his surprise, felt little fear. There would be two things at the end of that road, he thought, and the punishment for treason was one of them.
And yet Teddy would be another.
It was alright.
Jaime carefully set the fuse for the smoke. It rose freely into the air, twirling in puppet dances that Teddy used to compose. The theater was dispelled an hour later, when the army Jaime had called marched to him, their footsteps monotonous and cold.
And Jaime pointed them, with the strength of immortality underneath his feet, towards the road where steps had not yet been taken. He would march with them, towards the place where the horizon lies, for Teddy would be there. Even now, he thought he could see a glint of light at the end of the road, blinking playfully, telling him where the sun would be.